Wednesday, September 21, 2022
Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorLauren Morello
Health & Science Editor
Hello and welcome to the debut edition of Grid Health! I’m Lauren Morello, Grid’s health and science editor. We’d like you to be an early reader of our new email dedicated to health. Every Wednesday afternoon, led by Public Health Reporter Jonathan Lambert, we’ll bring you our latest stories and favorite reads, drawing connections between health and politics, tech, climate, the economy and misinformation.  

We know that health doesn’t stop at the hospital door, so neither does our reporting. We’ll explain how important stories, seemingly unrelated to health, are very much about health, and show you how health developments have wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected impacts. 🏥

Rather than incremental scoops, we want to highlight new ways to think about old problems.  

Most importantly, we want this newsletter to be valuable to you and fun to read, so please 
let us know how we’re doing and how we can do better. And of course, if you decide this newsletter isn’t for you, you can unsubscribe here at any time. 📩

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Cameron Hood, Newsletter EditorJonathan Lambert
Public Health Reporter

Welcome! This week, I’m thinking about whether the Biden administration’s shiny new billion-dollar health research agency — ARPA-H — can live up to its goal of finding bold solutions to the nation’s most pressing and persistent health problems, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and covid. 

The White House announced this month that Renee Wegrzyn, a biologist and biotech executive with prior government experience, would be ARPA-H’s first leader. The new agency is modeled after DARPA, the Army’s pie-in-the-sky research arm, which helped create the internet, GPS and the computer mouse, among other things. Its approach to funding – supporting high-risk, but potentially high-reward research – bucks the federal government’s normal conservative attitude.  

If it works, ARPA-H could achieve breakthroughs that wouldn’t be possible under the standard NIH grant model. The government’s covid vaccine accelerator, Operation Warp Speed, illustrates how taking big risks on health-related research can pay off. The first two covid vaccines approved in the U.S. went from the lab bench to American arms in roughly a year, shattering the previous record for vaccine development. 

But many details about how the new agency, ARPA-H, will operate are still fuzzy. 

Will the agency be just another branch of NIH? Housing the agency within the National Institutes of Health, a $45 billion bureaucratic juggernaut that enjoys strong bipartisan support, could give ARPA-H the
resources to hit the ground running. But ARPA-H is supposed to be fundamentally different from the NIH, funding blue-sky ideas that might cure cancer – or fail spectacularly. Some scientists argue it should be a totally separate entity.  

The Biden administration is trying to thread the needle: In May, it announced that ARPA-H's director would report to the Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, rather than the NIH director. But Congress has yet to approve this arrangement.  

Will it get enough runway? The Biden administration asked for $6.5 billion to get ARPA-H off the ground, but Congress approved only $1 billion spread over three years. That’s not pocket change, but it could take more time and money for the risky projects ARPA-H is designed to support to actually pay off. Without a clear success in the agency's first few years, Congress may be reluctant to cough up more cash. 

Will big science alone be enough to crack some of the country’s toughest health problems? America’s health is shaped by larger forces than just the latest drugs or treatments. Social determinants of health — exposure to pollution, education, access to affordable housing and healthcare — underlie the country’s staggering health disparities.
Some experts argue that closing those gaps requires more than ever-more sophisticated medicines or other techno-fixes. 

ARPA-H's new director starts Oct. 1. We’ll be watching to see what happens next. 👀


👋 We want to hear from you: If you’ve got thoughts about what else we should be covering, or questions about health in the news, send me your questions – we read every message. 📩 


💠 President Biden set off a scramble last weekend when he told “60 Minutes” that "the pandemic is over.” With hundreds of Americans still dying each day from covid, public health experts told me that misses the point. They argue that the U.S. needs to find a way to live with the virus without sacrificing so many Americans to death or disability, without stressing hospitals to the breaking point and without disrupting key supply chains and services. As one public health researcher put it: “You don’t just put out a fire in a city and think you never have to worry about the threat of fires again.” Read more.

💠 Fake “rainbow fentanyl” pain pills point to the explosive growth of counterfeit tablets in illicit drug markets nationwide — overtaking heroin and spurring record overdose deaths, writes Science Reporter Dan Vergano. The Drug Enforcement Agency has called the
sudden emergence of candy-colored fentanyl “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids and young adults.” But experts in the illegal drug market say that theory is doubtful and could undermine efforts to warn casual adult drug users about the risks of the pills. Read more.

💠 Humans aren’t the only ones lining up to give blood these days. The demand for dog donors is growing along with people’s willingness to pay for expensive veterinary procedures in areas like neurology and oncology that were once reserved for human patients. But there’s a catch, finds Freelance Reporter Tove Danovich: Only a certain percentage of dogs is eligible to donate blood — a population that might be shrinking as more people seek out small dogs. And many owners don’t even know that such a thing exists. Read more.

💠 Sen. Lindsey Graham’s claim that his 15-week abortion-ban bill would bring the U.S. in line with the rest of the world is based on out-of-context and out-of-date information, according to Data Reporter Alex Leeds Matthews. It also ignores a significant global trend: Experts say that the rest of the world, including Europe, is moving toward making abortion more accessible. Read more.


🎧 Introducing Grid’s brand-new podcast, Bad Takes!  Have a bad take for Laura and Matt to review in a future episode? Send it to us📩


Like much of Europe, New England is transforming its electric grid, retiring coal, oil and nuclear plants, leaving it largely dependent on natural gas to keep the lights on and power its homes. And, like much of Europe, New England could be on track for an expensive winter, Domestic Economics Reporter Matt Zeitlin writes. 

Despite New England’s goal of limiting carbon emissions, more than half of its electric power still comes from natural gas that comes into the region in pipelines and, exclusively unlike anywhere else in the United States, imported in liquefied form from overseas. The region’s squeeze between a fossil-fuel-reliant present and renewable-energy future always tightens when demand for home heating rises, but this year, the
pressure could be significantly higher, as conflict with Russia has increased the cost of natural gas around the globe. 

But the pain isn’t just economic: As the price of heating homes rises, so too do the rates of death from common conditions, according to a
2019 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  


  • Will the monkeypox virus become more dangerous? (Science)
  • How Bill Gates and partners used their global clout to control the global Covid response – with little oversight (Politico)
  • Johnson & Johnson and a new war on consumer protection (The New Yorker)


📩 P.S. Do you work in healthcare? We want to hear from you. The pandemic has stretched many hospitals to the breaking point, with ongoing staffing shortages, reliance on highly paid temporary workers – and recently, the largest nursing strike in U.S. history. We want to cover this inflection point though the lenses of policy, economics, inequality and more. Tell us about your experiences and what angles you think we should cover. Email us or tweet at us @gridnews

👋 Thanks for reading. See you next week. – Jon and Lauren

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Alex Leeds Matthews, Cameron Hood and Lillian Barkley also contributed to this edition of Grid Health.
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