Feb 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden science adviser conflicted out of COVID vaccine work

Dr. Eric Lander is seen gesturing after he was introduced by President-elect Biden.

Dr. Eric Lander. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Biden's pick for top government scientist will have to refrain from working on COVID vaccine matters until he divests as much as $1 million of stock in a company manufacturing one, the White House tells Axios.

Why it matters: Dr. Eric Lander also won't work on any other issues that could affect his sizable portfolio until he's fully divested, the White House said. That could take months, potentially handicapping a key administration hand at a crucial time.

What's new: In financial disclosure paperwork made public Monday, Lander, a renowned MIT geneticist nominated to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, disclosed owning stock worth between $500,000 and $1 million in the company BioNTech.

  • The company is manufacturing a vaccine with Pfizer that was among the first two to receive emergency use authorization.
  • It was just one of scores of holdings in Lander's portfolio, which includes numerous other pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
  • Lander was the founder of the biopharmaceutical company Codiak Biosciences, and disclosed equity in the company worth between $5 million and $25 million. That company has also sought to develop a COVID vaccine.
  • A major Codiak investor, venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, is run by the founder and chairman of COVID vaccine developer Moderna.

What they're saying: A White House spokesperson told Axios that Lander, who is working with the White House even as the Senate considers his nomination, is not participating in decisions that would constitute financial conflicts.

  • "Dr. Lander is recused from particular matters related to any stocks he holds pending divestiture, including any such matters related to COVID vaccines," a White House spokesperson told Axios.
  • Lander is currently advising the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the spokesperson said, and "is complying with all applicable ethics rules and appropriate recusals are in place pending divestiture."

The bottom line: Lander plans to divest his individual stock holdings if confirmed. But until he does, he'll be barred from participating in matters that could benefit BioNTech unless he receives a waiver of relevant ethics rules.

  • That divestment could take up to 90 days, Lander told federal ethics officials, and he's joining an administration working to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a breakneck pace.
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