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JUDY WOODRUFF: The World Health Organization reported the Ebola outbreak is still
racing well ahead of efforts to stop it. West Africa needs at least 4,000 more hospital beds and thousands more workers.
In addition, the first case in Mali was confirmed today. And while drugs and vaccines are still being developed, there’s
a push to see if science can find new and different answers.
The president’s team had a meeting on that subject today.
Shortly afterward, our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, sat down in the Briefing Room with the president’s
top science adviser, John Holdren.
MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. Holdren, thank you so much for being with us.
JOHN HOLDREN, Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Happy to be here.
MILES O’BRIEN: Tell us a little bit — for people who are uninitiated, a little bit about
this group and this meeting. What was the goal here today?
JOHN HOLDREN: Well, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology is a group of
leaders from the scientific, engineering and biomedical communities from around the country who advise the president on a
part-time basis, bringing perspectives from that wider science and technology community to bear on the policy issues the president
has on his plate.
Of course, one of the big policy issues the president has on his plate now is the Ebola challenge. And the idea of this
meeting was to call together the PCAST members, at the president’s request, to share their ideas with him, particularly
about what capabilities, ideas and approaches from the private sector and the academic sector could be married to what the
government is already doing on the Ebola challenge, which is a lot, in order to amplify and improve the effectiveness of the
MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s talk a little bit about technology here.
JOHN HOLDREN: Yes.
MILES O’BRIEN: Are there technological solutions out there that are within the time frame of the
current crisis that could make a dent?
And one of the things we think about, of course, is protecting our health care workers. Is there a better garment and
a better procedure out there that your group is seeing?
JOHN HOLDREN: Well, in fact, we have been working inside the government on better personal protective
equipment. They call it PPE.
We had a two-day workshop October 10 and 11 with over a hundred innovators, inventors, public health practitioners, doctors,
working on how to improve these garments. Of course, part of the challenge with the garments we have is making sure you put
them on and take them off in a way that is safe.
But a further problem with them is that they’re not air-conditioned. And a lot of this work is going out in very
hot and humid environments. The workers can only stay in these garments for maybe 40 minutes to an hour. So, we’re
working on garments that can be cooled. We also have assistance from NASA in this space.
This is very much inside the government, an interagency effort. NASA knows how to make protective suits that work in extreme
environments. We’re tapping that expertise, along with others, to end up with better suits so that the health care
workers can work longer and safer.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, if we can put a man on the moon, we can make them safe to deal with Ebola, can’t
JOHN HOLDREN: Exactly.
MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.
JOHN HOLDREN: Exactly.
MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s talk a little bit about another technological solution that I read about.
I was a little bit skeptical about it, the idea that robots could somehow be employed to deal with this crisis in a way that
would protect human beings. Is that realistic at this point?
JOHN HOLDREN: Well, in fact, we are having a workshop, my office, the Office of Science and Technology
Policy, and a number of other partners on November 7 on potential uses of robots in the Ebola challenge.
Perhaps the best example of how a robot can be useful is cleaning up and decontaminating a room that has had Ebola patients
in it, and has a lot of contaminated stuff in it. Obviously, if you could have a robot do that, and do it effectively, it
would be safer than having a human being dealing with all of that contaminated waste and mess.
MILES O’BRIEN: But are robots really ready for that?
JOHN HOLDREN: I think they probably are.
I mean, you would be amazed at what robots can now do. You know, we have robots being developed that can fight fires and
go into dangerous fire situations that you wouldn’t want to send a human fireman into. We can certainly — we
can certainly make a robot that can decontaminate a room.
MILES O’BRIEN: I suspect that’s not within the time frame of the immediate crisis, however,
JOHN HOLDREN: I wouldn’t be so sure. I think we could probably adapt some existing robots to be
useful in the current situation in a fairly short span of time.
MILES O’BRIEN: All right.
Let’s talk a little bit on the science side for a minute. I know this is not your particular area of expertise,
so — and there are other people in the government who are…
JOHN HOLDREN: Thank you for recognizing.
MILES O’BRIEN: You are a physicist, and I get that. So, as — but there are a lot of people
who have been working for some time on vaccines.
JOHN HOLDREN: Absolutely.
MILES O’BRIEN: But Ebola has been around for a long time, and we’re still waiting for a vaccine.
Is it still quite some time before one might be available?
JOHN HOLDREN: Well, obviously, the current crisis has ramped up the interest and the effort in developing
an Ebola vaccine. There is a promising vaccine in what they call phase one testing right now, looking to confirm the immunological
response that one is looking for in a vaccine that would then, if it passes that test, go into what they call phase two and
three testing, where they are looking for efficacy and the absence of any unmanageable side effects.
It is possible that we would have a vaccine by some time next year. These time scales are challenging. You have to do
clinical trials to be sure that you are dealing with a vaccine that is going to do a lot of good and not a lot of harm on
And with luck, we will have a vaccine in a matter of months, not in years. But then you have the challenges of ramping
up the production. And one of the things that, with PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology,
is looking at is, how can the government and the private sector work together to make sure that we have the production capacity
that would be needed the moment we have a good vaccine?
MILES O’BRIEN: I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the travel ban, much discussed,
much misunderstood. The question is, you know, if you are trying to stop the spread of a disease, isn’t it prudent
to stop the spread of the people who might be carrying the disease, and wouldn’t it be prudent to initiate a travel
ban from people coming out of these countries?
JOHN HOLDREN: We think a travel ban is actually a bad idea, in that it would make the American public
less safe and our challenge of dealing with this epidemic worse.
MILES O’BRIEN: How so less safe?
JOHN HOLDREN: And the reason is that, if you emplace a travel ban, first of all, you only catch a modest
fraction of the people who are moving around.
We have, for example, about 150 people a day traveling directly to the United States from these countries, that is, not
on a broken itinerary, where they stop for a week in London or Paris or Brussels in between, about 150 a day; 55 percent of
those are American citizens who have a constitutional right to return to the United States.
Another 10 percent are green card holders who one is not sure their permanent residence. We’re not sure that it
would be a great idea to keep American green card holders from returning. But the worst thing about a travel ban is that
it would drive travel underground.
Right now, we are able to identify and monitor the people who are coming in from these countries. As you know from the
newspaper, we now have them all funneling into five airports. Everybody who comes in from these countries is advised to monitor
and report in every day on their temperature and whether they are showing any symptoms.
You put a travel ban on, you’re going to drive the travel underground. There are lots of routes by which people
can get into this country without being noticed in the net you would have under a travel ban. And you will have far less
control, far less insight, far less monitoring than you have now.
You would, in addition, of course, with a travel ban, make it much harder for health workers to come in and out, make it
much harder for us to control the epidemic there. If we can’t control the epidemic there, the sources from which it
could spread to the United States will propagate and, again, in that longer-term respect, we will also be worse off.
MILES O’BRIEN: To the extent that you are dealing with in this country an epidemic of fear more
than an epidemic of disease, would announcing a travel ban, to the extent that it might allay some fears, would it be prudent
in that respect?
JOHN HOLDREN: I think embracing a bad policy for reasons of optics is almost always a bad idea.
In fact, as a scientist, I would venture to say it is always a bad idea. If this is a bad policy, we shouldn’t do
it. And we should use our ability to communicate with the American public and to educate them to persuade them why it is
a bad idea. It is a bad idea because it would make us less safe, and not more safe.
MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. John Holdren, thank you so much for your time.
JOHN HOLDREN: My pleasure.
GWEN IFILL: So far, the more immediate Ebola threat domestically, at least, has been the fear and anxiety
it has sparked. Online, we break down the impact this kind of stress can have on your health. That is on our Rundown.
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safety gear, contamination-cleaning robots: How innovation could aid Ebola prevention appeared first on PBS NewsHour.