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One-On-One with Merck's Dr. Julie Gerberding on combatting COVID-19

Vicky Stinson
Vicky Stinson
April 9, 2020

The biotech industry is working tirelessly to identify new advancements to diagnose, treat, and prevent COVID-19 and help save lives around the world. For a recent I AM BIO podcast, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood sat down with Dr. Julie Gerberding, Executive Vice President at Merck and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to get her perspective and expertise on the COVID-19 pandemic and learn why she is optimistic about our ability to stop the virus. 

Greenwood: What did you see early on that convinced you that something really rough was coming?

Gerberding: I knew two things. One is just watching what was going on in China. And then the cruise ship in Japan. This was going to be a very transmissible virus at the community level. That made me worry right away about what was going to be happening in our health care system. The second thing that I knew was it's going to take a while for us to get treatments and certainly vaccines available to people. Social distancing was really the only choice we had in the short run. From the data that were available from the 1918 pandemic, all the way to the present time, we know if those things are going to make a difference, they have to start soon. 

Greenwood: Is it reasonable to expect that what we'll have here is not just a curve that goes up and then comes down to zero, but rather a curve that goes up and then another curve goes up and down in a number of smaller curves like that?

Gerberding: As an infectious disease doctor, I have to say this just breaks my heart. This is a tragic outbreak. So many fragile people have become seriously ill and many have died. And I know we're going to see more of that. It's a terrible situation for us to be in. And we have a lot of cases and the number is going to get bigger in the United States. But at a population level, most of us still have not come in contact with the virus and remain vulnerable. 

Greenwood: You led the CDC under President Bush and you led our response to SARS and MERS. What are the biggest similarities and differences you see between those outbreaks and the coronavirus pandemic?

Gerberding: I did serve in the Bush administration and we had so many outbreaks during that period of time. It was SARS, but it was also monkeypox. We had a mad cow catastrophe on Christmas Eve one year, and we had West Nile Virus march across the United States and so forth. It was really one outbreak after another. Of course, that's continued up until the present time. We had the 2009 influenza outbreak. We had Ebola in West Africa. We had Zika. Now we have Ebola in the DRC. One of the most important observations that I made back in 2003, and I think it's holding true, is that we're going to be in a new normal where these animal viruses are spilling over into our societies all the time. 

Greenwood: From your days at CDC, if we could walk into the CDC right now with a camera crew, what would we see going on there?

Gerberding: The first place you would probably want to visit is the emergency operations center, which is as sophisticated as any in the nation, and have situational awareness to just about every environment where there is information that pertains to the spread of the disease. There'll be a map that shows transportation patterns. There will be maps that show how many cases and what is the impact at a very local level. There'll be data on a screen showing the supplies of ventilators and masks and all the other equipment. They'll be tracking the testing that the CDC public health system is now supporting, but also the testing that the private sector is doing. All of this information is in this giant room where some of the smartest people in the world are sitting at their desks with their technical expertise creating daily situation awareness action items that dictate what is the agenda for the day, and how they then link that information to the Department of Health and Human Services and the rest of our government so that we can coordinate an all of government response.

Greenwood: What's your most optimistic hope about when you think we might be able to see drugs that will treat patients that are experiencing respiratory distress already and protect people in the short term with antibodies and in the long term with vaccines?

Gerberding: I'd like to be really optimistic about the short-term options for treatment. I can't believe that among all the antivirals that the companies have on their shelves or in the marketplace and all of the other interventions, either against the virus or against the exaggerated immune response that occurs in the sickest patients, that we don’t have some things that we can get out there quickly. But we need to do that with the appropriate clinical trials. I think this is the industry's finest moment. We have more shots on goal for this virus than we've ever had for any new problem in medicine. Our science is so much further ahead than it was in, say, 2003 when SARS first emerged. There's got to be a solution there, but we just have to put it on the fastest possible track and not worry about business, but worry about the lives that we can save.

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For more information on what BIO and our members are doing to fight COVID-19, visit