The Pandemic Center celebrated its official opening on Wednesday, October 12 at the Brown University School of Public Health. The event demonstrated Brown’s commitment to recruiting national leaders who will advance the work of pandemic preparedness and expand the School’s impact on one of the most urgent public health and national security challenges of our time.
Interim Dean Ronald Aubert introduced Jennifer Nuzzo, founding director of the Pandemic Center and professor of epidemiology, and Beth Cameron, senior advisor to the Center and professor of health services policy and practice.
“When the Pandemic Center was proposed to the Academic Priorities Committee,” Aubert said, “everyone was excited: the life-sciences folks, the bio folks, but also unusual suspects from the history and classics departments who wanted to get involved in some way. It underlines how important this is.”
Professor Nuzzo, Aubert said, “is a big thinker, a comprehensive thinker, who works with a real sense of urgency.” She comes to Brown from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security where she served as senior scholar.
Nuzzo sounded the alarm on COVID-19 more than three months before the World Health Organization characterized it as a pandemic. On January 2, 2020, she and her colleagues reported an “Unknown Viral Pneumonia in China” through the Outbreak Observatory, a project she helped organize at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Pandemic Center at Brown will similarly practice ‘outbreak communications,’ informing public understanding at the local, national, and international levels about infectious threats around the world.
The Pandemic Center’s senior advisor, Professor Cameron, has worked at the highest levels of government, most recently as senior director for Global Health Security on the White House National Security Council. “Watching how the US dealt with the pandemic was an earth-shaker,” Cameron said. “It was a recognition that we need to get out in front of pandemic threats and translate pandemic risk into public action.”
Nuzzo and Cameron bring their expertise and many years of experience working at the nexus of public health and national security to the Brown School of Public Health – not only regarding COVID-19 but also whatever lies ahead.
“We want to make sure that pandemic threats never upend our lives again,” Nuzzo said.
Brown’s commitment to collaboration and interdisciplinarity makes it the right place to launch the Pandemic Center and carry out its work. “We can’t do this in silos,” Cameron said. “It’s incredibly rare for schools of public health to collaborate with governments and community organizations.” Nuzzo added: “There’s no better place than Brown to start this work.”
The Cost of Pandemics
Nuzzo detailed the ways in which pandemics threaten our society. Not only do they bring death and devastation to families and communities, they overwhelm our healthcare systems and wreak unforeseen social, economic, and political harms that extend for decades beyond initial outbreaks.
COVID-19 has resulted in 6.5 million deaths worldwide. “This is staggering, absolutely staggering,” Nuzzo said, “and it is almost certainly an undercount. Also, the impacts of these deaths have not been shared equally. Certain groups have been disproportionately affected. Not all of us can Zoom for two years or afford N95 masks. Not all of us have an extra bedroom if they’ve tested positive, or can take off multiple weeks from work.”
In their remarks, Nuzzo and Cameron urged their packed audience to consider the ancillary ramifications of pandemic threats. They pointed to the disruption of healthcare services during the height of the pandemic which helped lead to a spike in opioid overdoses. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories exploded across the internet, causing widespread vaccine hesitancy and aiding a resurgence in polio and measles. The shutdown of schools and the turn to remote learning “erased twenty years of progress in math and reading for American 9-year-olds.” The economy was hit by supply-chain bottlenecks, inflation, price-gouging, and interest-rate hikes.
“A successful response tries to mitigate these effects,” Nuzzo said. “It plans for them and makes sure they don’t happen.”
The overall political impact of the pandemic is still being determined. What’s clear is that democratic processes and confidence in the very idea of democracy have been damaged. “This is especially chilling to me,” Nuzzo said. “There is also a rising narrative that democracies failed in the face of COVID-19 while authoritarian governments succeeded.” This leads back to the crisis of disinformation, which, Nuzzo says, “is the single biggest pandemic communications issue.”
Cause for Optimism
Nuzzo remains optimistic about our ability to tackle these pandemic preparedness issues and referenced the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 to illustrate her point. Over a century ago, massive urban fires occurred with some regularity. (The Baltimore Fire itself was bookended by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906). But, as a nation, we adopted measures to minimize our risk. Officials enacted a plan grounded in data, drills, and defense, which dramatically helped to prevent fires and save lives. Nuzzo and Cameron are employing this model against pandemic threats today.
Nuzzo’s optimism also comes from the speed at which we are developing vaccines and the fact that we can now test ourselves for COVID and the flu at home. Monkeypox, in addition, is showing us how affected communities can take care of each other, inspiring the Pandemic Center to include community-building in its plans. Further, interest in public health as a calling and profession has never been higher.
“We have a fresh generation of people entering this field,” Cameron said, “and there is a lot of hope and potential in that.”