EXCLUSIVE: Meet the top American fighting COVID-19 at WHO

When Maria Van Kerkhove sat before a room full of reporters on Jan. 14, she admits she was a little nervous.

As the newly appointed technical lead in charge of a key pillar of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to a coronavirus outbreak that was beginning to spread in China, it was her first experience talking to a media scrum hungry for answers.

Three months later, Van Kerkhove, 43, looks like the savvy veteran.

She spends an hour or more three times a week in virtual press conferences — reporters are no longer allowed in the room — translating the dense scientific jargon and fast-moving developments she digests on a constant basis into lay terms that will be disseminated around the world. 

“The responsibility that we have with these press conferences is to inform the public, and I want to do that in a measured, responsible way. Speaking to scientists, you can use certain language. But speaking in a press conference, I’m speaking to my grandmother, who passed away. She’s no longer there, but she would be so proud,” Van Kerkhove told The Hill in an exclusive interview.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands, Van Kerkhove has become one of the public faces of the WHO’s campaign to stop the coronavirus, and its most prominent American representative.

Van Kerkhove’s job means keeping up with reams of scientific studies and anecdotal reports and coordinating between doctors, emergency managers and academics across the world to gather a comprehensive understanding of COVID-19 and its threat to humanity.

“Right now, she’s probably one of the three most important people in the world working on this pandemic,” said Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, who counts Van Kerkhove as a personal friend. “She’s the keeper of the evidence base.”

Van Kerkhove said she is troubled that politics is entering into a pandemic that still rages.

The WHO has come under increasing fire in recent weeks from conservatives in Washington, who blame it for not being tough enough on China in the outbreak’s early days, and from President Trump, who has erroneously claimed that WHO did not forewarn the United States about the severity of the virus. Trump has attempted to use the WHO as a scapegoat to distract from his own efforts to downplay the threat, efforts that continued even after WHO declared the virus a public health emergency and a global pandemic.

“I try to stay out of the politics because I’m the technical person, but it’s disappointing to see, it’s disappointing to hear,” Van Kerkhove said of Trump’s criticisms. “I love my country, I want to see that that financial support as well as the technical support continues.”

At that first press conference on Jan. 14, Van Kerkhove became the most senior medical expert in the world to say publicly that there was evidence that the coronavirus in China might be spreading between humans — something the Chinese government was denying at the time.

In the months since, she has become a celebrity in the rarified world of global public health — and, occasionally, beyond. Friends from high school and college regularly text and email to tell her they have seen her on television.

“Her technical acumen and ability to communicate clearly has been a huge asset to the WHO’s response. She’s regularly been ahead of the curve in her public comments,” said Prabhjot Singh, a physician and health systems expert at Mount Sinai and the Icahn School of Medicine. “Americans should focus on what people like her do well and ask for more of it from the WHO.”

Van Kerkhove’s long days begin with an incident management meeting, where division chiefs review what they know about the coronavirus pandemic and what teams are working on. Van Kerkhove and the WHO team then dedicate another hour to other outbreaks raging on, from another Ebola epidemic to yellow fever, malaria, cholera and HIV.

By 10 a.m., Van Kerkhove is on the phone with armies of academics studying the coronavirus, senior leaders in national health ministries, regional WHO managers and incident management teams. Her own team spends days writing new guidance that will eventually inform actions from the international level down to the most local level, aiding doctors and nurses as they care for the patients struggling to hold on to their lives.

After the three weekly press conferences, Van Kerkhove is back to her desk, reviewing the guidance and training courses her team has developed, then taking another look at the latest scientific literature that is being developed at a seemingly breakneck pace. There are more than 30 reviews of new and emerging scientific literature underway at any given time, she said.

If she is lucky, she will be home by 10 p.m.

“I don’t see my kids very much lately,” Van Kerkhove said.

“She is working insane hours,” Katz said. “There’s an incredible amount of stress, but she’s always put together and calm and one of the clearer communicators about really complex issues.”

A native of New Hartford, N.Y., Van Kerkhove is one of a growing generation of global public health leaders who grew up inspired by tales of virus hunters who lived life at the edge of civilization, epidemiologists chronicled in Richard Preston books and the 1995 thriller “Outbreak,” which debuted as the Ebola virus raged in Kikwit, in Congo. Her high school AP biology teacher encouraged her interests, and set her on a path to Cornell, Stanford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I loved the idea of studying viruses and pathogens and how they evolve with people,” Van Kerkhove said. “I love the sort of detective work around that.”

She spent college summers studying the way indigenous people use plants for medicinal purposes alongside the ethnobotanist Eloy Rodriguez in Mexico, Costa Rica and Venezuela. A five-year stint at a consulting firm in New York taught her to synthesize as much information as possible in evaluating risks. Her Ph.D. thesis sent her to Cambodia to study the H5N1 influenza, surveying live animal markets and mapping how a virus might spread through a community.

When H1N1 broke out across the globe in 2009, Van Kerkhove embedded with the WHO’s flu team, liaising with academic modelers and analytics experts and the public health experts who used their data to make decisions about how and where to deploy resources. Six years later, she landed at the Institut Pasteur, the Paris-based network of global health organizations, where she set up rapid response and investigation teams aimed at detecting new outbreaks around the world.

In 2017, she moved permanently to the WHO, where she became the technical leader of a team dedicated to investigating the virus that causes Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, the last coronavirus to threaten humanity. Her portfolio grew to include a frightening roster of high-threat pathogens like SARS, Zika, chikungunya, bubonic plague and smallpox — zoonotic diseases that can jump from animals to humans.

“The theme of my life has been around viruses and emerging pathogens and how do we study their emergence from animals to humans, and how do we stop it,” she said. 

The WHO is an internationally diverse organization. Its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is a former health and foreign affairs minister in Ethiopia. His senior leadership team includes natives of Hungary, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Saudi Arabia, France, Senegal, Morocco, China and the United States. 

Two other Americans play key roles in the WHO’s coronavirus response — Janet Diaz, who leads the clinical response, and Mark Perkins, who oversees the laboratory response. Thirty-one American citizens report to Mike Ryan, who heads the WHO’s emergencies program.

The WHO has built decades of ties with the top American agencies now battling the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More than a dozen CDC researchers and experts were working at WHO headquarters as the coronavirus spread, sending real-time information back to the Trump administration, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

“Having CDC staff means there is nothing hidden from the U.S.,” Tedros told reporters Monday. “Keeping things secret is dangerous. It’s a health issue.”

Even as Trump has attacked the WHO, CDC Director Robert Redfield spoke up for the agency, and Van Kerkhove said those partnerships will endure.

“What is hard for me if I’m totally honest is the distraction that this brings to the work I need to do. I’m not used to this level of politics in this. CDC is such an important partner of ours, and NIH for that matter,” she said. “That will not change.”

Van Kerkhove defended the WHO’s actions in the early days of the outbreak, when it set up an emergency committee even as some health experts said the talk of a pandemic was overblown. Within days of China’s reports of an odd cluster of pneumonia cases, the coronavirus at its core had been identified. Three days later, the first RNA sequence was made available to global public health labs, and the first tests to identify the virus were available four days after that, the day of Van Kerkhove’s media debut.

“The speed with which we were able to do that with all of our partners helped the world prepare,” she said. “We worked with U.S. CDC from day one. Even before that, because they were working with us on Ebola.”

That early work, and the social distancing steps that have helped curtail the virus in many parts of the world, will make the coronavirus pandemic unique in human history, Van Kerkhove said.

“This is the first pandemic in history that we will be able to control. We’ve seen this. It’s going to be difficult. Stick with us, stick with the science and be patient with your governments and your leaders about the next steps, because the public health measures that are put in place, these lockdowns that are put in place are difficult,” she said. “We’re all going to get through this. We’re all going to be OK, and we will try to save as many lives as we can.”

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Ebola WHO World Health Organization

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