ASTMH Annual Meeting 2021blog
A Conversation with Incoming ASTMH President Daniel Bausch
By: Matthew Davis, Burness
Daniel Bausch, MD, MPH&TM, FASTMH, recently assumed the ASTMH presidency for 2022. Dr. Bausch also served for six years as ASTMH Scientific Program Chair and prior to that was a member of the ASTMH Board. He is currently Director of Emerging Threats & Global Health Security at FIND, the global alliance for diagnostics. Dr. Bausch specializes in emerging tropical viruses, with over 25 years of experience in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia combating viruses such as Ebola, Lassa, hantavirus and SARS coronaviruses. He has previously served as Director of the United Kingdom’s Public Health Rapid Support and also has held posts at the WHO, the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 6 in Lima, Peru, the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the CDC.
Dr. Bausch recently sat down with science writer Matthew Davis to discuss his upcoming presidency, reflecting on the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic and contemplating the similarities and difference between fighting COVID-19 and his work combating Ebola virus outbreaks.
What’s it like coming into the presidency of a scientific society focused on global health at the height of the biggest global health crisis in 100 years?
As a Society we need to look at the opportunities that have emerged in the midst of the many challenges generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
First of all, we are a Society that has always focused on the value of sound science, public health advocacy and health equity. It’s hard to think of a better example of how important these values are for the world today than the pandemic we are living through right now. We need to continue to use this moment to highlight their relevance beyond the current crisis.
The pandemic has prompted us to move faster to implement changes we have been discussing within the Society for years. Before the pandemic, we had been talking about how we could make our Annual Meetings more accessible to people around the world who may face financial or logistical barriers to attending. And one plus of having an all-virtual meeting these last two years is that we have been able to reach people who previously may not have attended.
But like many scientific societies, going forward we will need to find that sweet spot between the inclusiveness of the online format, minimizing our carbon footprint and the many benefits that come from an in-person meeting—all of the informal exchanges that occur over a coffee or a beer that can serve as an “incubator” for innovations and collaborations.
It’s not going to be easy, but it’s something we have been thinking about for a while now. The pandemic has acted as an accelerator for finding a solution.
You served as scientific program chair for several years. What did you learn from that work that will inform your job as President?
I feel fortunate to be coming into my presidency year having already served for six years as scientific program chair and two years as a board member before that. It’s been in many ways the perfect preparation for the transition.
Through that experience, I understand how things work and have great relationships with the leadership and staff. And being so closely involved with the scientific program has kept me grounded in the work of our members—seeing the incredible range of research we are pursuing, how that connects to the broader world of global health and also what resonates with the media and the general public.
How are you approaching your year as President, what is the framework for your time on the job?
One year is short and the time passes quickly. I am approaching this work by focusing on two key issues—and building on what (outgoing ASTMH President) Julie Jacobson has achieved.
The first is to think about the business model of ASTMH. Like all societies, we must be sustained by a certain level of funding; there are considerable costs associated with holding an Annual Meeting and providing the content and services we do. That gets back to what I said earlier, which is developing a format that allows greater outreach to partners overseas—but that is also financially viable.
Secondly, I have a lifelong interest in the human rights foundations of tropical medicine and global health. I want to look for opportunities to consistently make that connection.
In my professional career I have specialized in viral hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola and Lassa. It’s very clear in confronting these diseases that human rights and health equity are just as important as the biological and medical challenges. For example, if you traveled to North Kivu Province during the recent Ebola outbreak, you would see how a chronic lack of healthcare and exposure to conflict and human rights violations provide fertile ground for an infectious disease outbreak. An Ebola outbreak is not a random event. These sociocultural and political contexts underlie almost all diseases, but we often fail to recognize them, preventing us from getting to the heart of the problem.
I think we also need to take a hard look at human rights in the context of colonialism and how that has shaped the history of tropical medicine. It’s a difficult conversation in many respects, but it’s something that we as a Society should be leading.
How do you view the key challenges facing the Society and the broader world of global health and biomedical research in the wake of the pandemic?
We are in a strange place that I never anticipated years back, where it’s not just vaccines but science itself and really just basic facts and truths that are being questioned. I think there is the anti-vaccine issue that has been out there for some time now. But the difference today is this more fundamental rejection of science itself.
I am under no illusions that our Society alone can fix the problem. But we have to be one of the groups constantly working to distinguish scientific truth, supported by objective evidence, from all of the misinformation that is out there. We are an apolitical organization. But we also should be calling out anyone who is making decisions based on misinformation and that contradict strong scientific evidence. It’s being willing to stand up and say, “This is true and this is not true.”
Also, as we always have, we must continue to advocate for funding for the work we do. There are plenty of lessons from this pandemic, and frankly all epidemics, that show how much more it costs to fight a disease outbreak than to steadily invest in prevention and treatment. And we need to emphasize how that applies not just for diseases of pandemic potential, but for investments targeting a wide range of health burdens, like neglected tropical diseases, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases.
You were closely connected with the Ebola response in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How do you compare the current pandemic with those crises?
It’s an interesting question because there are of course significant differences in these two diseases, but also similarities that emerge when looking at the response.
The biggest difference is that Ebola is a disease that is much harder to transmit than COVID-19. You need direct contact with blood or other body fluids (such as: vomit, diarrhea, urine, breast milk, sweat, semen) of an infected person who has symptoms of Ebola or who has recently died from the disease. But if you do become infected, your risk of severe disease is much higher than in COVID-19, with survival being as low as 30% in some outbreaks. Yet given the relative ease of COVID-19 transmission through respiratory spread, including even from people without symptoms, far greater numbers of people are infected, and it causes far more deaths across a population.
The similarities I see in these two health crises is that in both cases, misinformation presents significant barriers to fighting the disease. We saw that in the West African Ebola outbreak and it has been especially challenging in the midst of the outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And we certainly have seen the disruptive power of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In both instances you can even find people who will insist that these diseases are not even real. Vaccine hesitancy has been an impediment to combating both Ebola and COVID-19.
By: Sara Canavati, Save the Children
By: Matthew Davis, Burness