An Inside Look into the CDC and FNIH

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Julie Louise Gerberding, president and CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and former lead of the CDC, shares insight into her experience at the CDC and FNIH in this Q&A with Pharm Exec.

In this exclusive Q&A with Pharmaceutical Executive®, Julie Louise Gerberding—president and CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a non-profit organization that builds public-private research partnerships to support the mission of the NIH—shares insight into her work. She co-chairs the CSIS Bipartisan Alliance on Global Health Security and is a member of the Commonwealth Fund Commission on a National Public Health System. Previously, she served as president of Merck Vaccines and as executive vice president and the chief patient officer at Merck & Co., Inc. From 2003-2009, Gerberding led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Pharm Exec®: You used to work as a CDC director. What was your experience like at the CDC? What was your role, and what were some of the biggest things you took away?

Julie Louise Gerberding, President and Chief Executive Officer, Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)

Julie Louise Gerberding, President and Chief Executive Officer, Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)

Gerberding: I served as the CDC director from 2003 to 2009, and that was a very exciting—and sometimes frightening—era in its history. I was truly awed by the incredible quality, dedication, and integrity of the CDC public health scientists and the teams who supported them, the sophistication and impact of its PEPFAR and other global programs, and how it could do so much with a budget that was so constrained relative to the scope and scale of what it was expected to accomplish.

Our focus converged on three unprecedented macro issues in population health that affected not only the United States but also people around the world.

  1. First, the global biosecurity threats posed by new and re-emerging infectious diseases (SARS, West Nile virus, mpox, avian influenza, and multi-drug-resistant bacteria outbreaks), intentional bioterrorism (anthrax attacks via the US mail), and accidental exposures from dangerous laboratory pathogens (isolated SARS cases in lab workers) required major expansion of the CDC’s emergency response planning, exercising, and global engagement.
  2. Second, the tremendous risks posed by the obesity epidemic and associated non-communicable diseases finally received widespread attention across the public health network and generated many new programs.
  3. Third, the impact of climate change on human and animal health, food production, and environmental calamities began to be taken seriously, at least in some sectors.

Together, these three areas—and their interrelationship—remain global health challenges that threaten us all. But in addition to these priorities, the CDC also addressed many challenges that people usually don’t recognize as part of the agency’s portfolio, like the rising prevalence of autism, the detection of environmental toxins and their health effects, newborn screening for genetic disorders and hearing deficits, traumatic brain injury, etc. The often-invisible public health work in these areas touches people’s lives every day.


Pharm Exec®: In what areas do you think the pharma industry has room for improvement?

Gerberding: As a former executive at Merck, I believe life science companies have a unique opportunity to be true exemplars of well-being and health across their entire global workforce. At the very least, they should ensure that their own employees have access to insurance benefits that emphasize prevention, health promotion, generous parental leave, mental health benefits, and related coverage. They can deploy their myriad health marketing talents to champion public health efforts in partnership with leaders in the communities they reach. They can advocate for broad policies that support innovation and accelerate global access to new medicines and vaccines.


Pharm Exec®: While at the CDC, what did you see the pharma industry excel in?

Gerberding: The biopharmaceutical industry proved to be a very important partner for CDC. During my tenure, the most conspicuous demonstration of this is the evolution of new vaccines that effectively and safely prevent a growing number of pathogens that threaten infants, children, and adults. In addition to the value of these inventions in the United States and developed countries, many life sciences companies worked to expand manufacturing capacity and developed tiered pricing schemes that helped support access to affordable vaccines in resource-limited Gavi countries. The number of lives saved through global immunization efforts represents one of the greatest public health achievements in the modern era. But partnerships weren’t limited to the vaccine space. Life sciences companies also engaged in bioterrorism surveillance and response efforts, collaborated in the development of diagnostics and stockpile drugs, and supported awareness campaigns to encourage screening and treatment of various medical conditions.


Pharm Exec®: You’re now the president and CEO of the FNIH. (Congrats!) What responsibilities do you have in your new role? What drew you to this role?

Gerberding: We have many vexing health challenges to solve, but science is on our side and solutions are within reach. Leading the FNIH is a wonderful opportunity to help accelerate progress and build bridges to breakthroughs that truly matter. The NIH is the world’s most important biomedical research organization, and I’m impressed every day with the caliber of science and the scientists it supports to discover and translate ideas into potential cures. It is a privilege to be at their table.

The FNIH was authorized by Congress as a nonprofit organization more than 25 years ago to support the mission of the NIH. Our largest effort focuses on designing and managing large public-private partnerships that create research platforms addressing a variety of therapeutic areas in the pre-competitive space. These platforms allow NIH to engage in creative collaborations to tackle complex research challenges that can’t really be addressed by any single organization or company. For example, the Accelerating Medicines Partnership® (AMP®) portfolio has programs to identify new targets and pathways in Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation and immunity, schizophrenia, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and rare diseases amenable to gene therapy, etc. Likewise, the Biomarkers Consortium seeks to accelerate drug development and approval by scientifically validating various types of biomarkers as a prelude to FDA biomarker qualification. FNIH also partners with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and maternal health globally. Part of our effort also focuses on individual scientists, including training support for more than 25,000 people in the last decade and our signature awards for outstanding science—the Lurie Prize for Biomedical Science and the Trailblazer Award given to outstanding clinician-scientists.


Pharm Exec®: From what you’re seeing at the FNIH, what do you think is on the horizon in the pharma industry?

Gerberding: This is the best of times; but in some ways, [it is] the worst of times for the biopharmaceutical industry. Advances in data sciences, imaging, and omics are opening astonishing possibilities for understanding the biology that underpins good health and disease pathology and will accelerate the identification of new targets for vaccines and curative medicines in a golden age of advances that were unimaginable a decade ago. On the other hand, research and development productivity is declining; discovery and translation costs are increasing; and the commercial enterprise is threatened by pricing controls, limits on intellectual property, and restrictions on access to innovative medicines. In addition, people’s trust in science and health information and the pharmaceutical industry is declining. Hopefully, the value of the pipeline of possibilities for curative therapies and healthy longevity will motivate the reversal of these worrisome trends. 


Pharm Exec®: If you could offer one piece of advice on leadership, what would it be?

Gerberding: Assemble a wise crowd of smart innovators with diverse talents and perspectives who are passionate about solving important problems and then do everything possible to support their effective execution. In other words, plan horizontally, execute vertically, and (above all) assume good intent.

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