Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Steve Papermaster

The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Steve Papermaster, CEO of Nano Vision and science adviser to former President George W. Bush.

Read excerpts from the interview below.


Clemons: What do you think we're getting right and what are we getting wrong as we chase this virus?

Papermaster: I think that the areas that we are getting right is we're throwing resources at the problem. There's certainly plenty of money, capital, federal money and private resources overall, but it's not all directed at the areas that will have the highest impact. I single out a couple things. Number one is certainly, as you mentioned, we've got a vast army of researchers and developers working on vaccines, our team included, which, in partnership with Dr. Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine, we are working feverishly, no pun intended, on a very potent, more traditional vaccine for COVID-19. One that could be applied in novel ways, including on your skin and up intranasal sprays. So I think the other key area that I would call out is that we need more innovation on the prevention side. We need sunblock for germs. It is basically an Achilles heel in our arsenal today of innovation. It's that we do not have the technology that we can spray on, wipe on, an ability to block and protect against COVID-19 and similar pathogens for at least many hours, if not up to 24 hours. That is one of the areas that we are rushing through our PIND [pre-investigational new drug application] with the FDA with our data pure special formulation.


Clemons: Now, you talk about sunblock for germs. Are germs evolving in a way that they become immune to this?

Papermaster: So the risk of mutation and risk of having multiple strains is one that we always watch out for in any kind of an outbreak of a pandemic nature or even just a pathogen outbreak. One of the beauties of this kind of technology is that it actually — attraction kills the membrane of the pathogen COVID-19 on contact and just like taking a pin to pop a balloon. What you end up with is harmless organic waste. By doing that, you basically have no mutation because you're not changing the RNA or using MRNA, which has its advantages. But in this case you have zero mutagenicity and you're not giving the chance for the organism to mutate and evolve, which is a risk that you just pointed out.


Clemons: The government has pointed to roughly seven firms that are likely to get manufacturing resources. There are a ton of firms out there that are innovating all around the world. What does the terrain look like for you as an entrepreneur? Are you being left out of the process by the government or do you have the resources you need to proceed?

Papermaster: Well, as an entrepreneur, I would tell you that there are many of us out here with very novel efforts teamed up with some of the very best scientists in the world that do not have all the resources that we need. It is a major focus that we have in securing additional private capital of expanding to meet the need in this COVID crisis. So it's something that we are working with the FDA in terms of accelerated approval process, NIH, BARDA, multiple government resources, which I do know from my experience well. But at the same time, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, we need a stronger push with private capital and public resources as well. And these are both commercial opportunities as well as opportunities to create something very important for the public good, which is the kind of protection and additional immunity delivery vehicles right up through the vaccine that we simply do not have answers to today, even with Operation Warp Speed. We have great resources, but we do not have a guaranteed success, and we need more of what we're doing and what others are doing to drive out there and get very scalable, low-cost products to markets as fast as we possibly can. That's how we end up with a more successful new normal. So entrepreneurs like Nano and our teams that are similar to us, still need, I think, additional focus and that would be from a capital standpoint and from a regulatory expediting process.


Clemons: You worked under President George Bush. Do you think the White House could do a better job of leading in this effort. As a member of the private sector, what do you need from a White House in a pandemic, that you're not getting or are you satisfied?

Papermaster: Well, under George W. Bush, we did actually publish and prepare what is the still state of the art of pandemic preparedness plan. We put that out in 2005 to 2007. The Obama administration had an excellent science team and continued to pursue preparedness for this type of potential disaster. I think the Trump administration and Trump team has done an admirable job with the coronavirus task force, with the COVID-19 task force, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx and others have provided excellent leadership. This happens to be a very overwhelming crisis, and we are testing the limits of what an administration can do and what federal government resources can do. We're not there yet. At the same time, I think, realizing that regardless of being an election year or not, this is a sustained war on COVID-19 and we need additional resources which can be monetary, it can be regulatory focus, it could be expediting processes. So I would urge the Trump administration and the current team to focus on every avenue, leave no stone unturned, reach out to the entrepreneurial community not just the Big Pharma companies, and work on expediting both capital and regulatory to get new therapeutics, new vaccines and new preventative products to market as fast as possible.


Clemons: What would you do to begin moving into more of a proactive response in dealing with the next pandemic?

Papermaster: So two ways to think about this, Steve. Number one is this has been our 9/11 moment relative to pandemics and pathogens. So we have been attacked at a level that we have not had before. We have had the kind of impact at scale both culturally, behaviorally, from a health and security standpoint that we have never had before. So post-9/11 we created Department of Homeland Security, TSA and many, many mechanisms to reduce and try and eliminate and block terrorism. We need the same kind of approach. This is a sustained structural change, the way that we saw again in dealing with terrorism, and that has to permeate really every aspect of society, work, life and play by introducing many paths to lower the risk of passage and transmission and contagion of COVID-19 and any similar type of pandemic. Now the world is more global and more mobile. Maybe not quite as much at the moment, but that will return. And that is an area that we're gonna have as an ongoing risk. So these mechanisms, the new therapeutics, new preventive technologies, new innovation in this and even the very definition of said vaccine, can that be applied in novel ways on a continued basis? I believe it can. The mechanisms are there — nanotechnology, nanoparticles are part of that. The ability to apply to your skin or in other ways, to create the immune response that we'd like. So this is more like understanding, this is inner space, a SpaceX moment like we've had in outer space. We need really novel thinking and new technology. I believe that entrepreneurs and private companies coupled with large pharma and government institutions are gonna be the answer. But it's going to take entrepreneurs just like it has with SpaceX and other similar pioneering environments to take government institutions in that case, NASA, and take them to whole new levels. We need to reach an entirely new level of innovation on a permanent basis, to create the kind of technologies for monitoring, for detection, for treatment, for prevention, and for immunity that we have in other industries, like outer space and space exploration.