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February 17, 2021

A Conversation with Dr. Bruce Gellin: The Need for Connection

By Yuxuan Liu (NHS’23)

“Connection” is the word I would use to summarize the conversation with Dr. Bruce Gellin, the president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute who previously served as the deputy assistant secretary for health and the director of the National Vaccine Program Office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

We are all in this together. We are all affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we could all benefit from the creation of COVID-19 vaccines. But is the world really well-connected to an extent that we can benefit from this breakthrough without obstacles? Maybe not. In the hour-long conversation, Dr. Gellin pointed out the disconnections in national and international vaccination plans and shared his insights on how different actors can cooperate with each other for better.

One of the disconnections Dr. Gellin talked about is misinformation. Dr. Gellin mentioned the idea of “infodemic” in his book review for Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start—and Why They Don’t Go Away. This rapid and vast spread of false information has led to vaccine hesitancy. It was a lack of trust, he commented. Especially when the people already don’t trust other parts of the system. 

Another disconnection appears in the vaccine distribution system. This plays out on both local and international levels. In my opinion, the local disconnection comes from the lack of interoperability between different smaller systems within the health care industry. Dr. Gellin gave an example of people having to get their second doses of COVID-19 vaccine at the same place where they got their first ones, showing a need for increased communication and flexibility. On the international side, the World Health Organization's director-general casted his doubts on whether “high-income countries will keep the promises” at the 148th session of the Executive Board. High-income countries could prioritize themselves instead of providing vaccines to other countries, increasing inequalities across the globe.

These problems are challenging. Most of them are systematic, but I think they can be resolved. On the local level, governments and institutions can connect people with accurate information by exploring community-based approaches to spread information in ways that locals consider reliable. Health care providers can connect with each other utilizing information systems to manage their data in both safe and more efficient ways. And on the international side, both COVAX and other initiatives regarding vaccine distribution are addressing international cooperation, allowing different countries and actors to share experiences and resources. The conversation reminds me once again that we can overcome the difficulties if we can consider all humans as one group and work as a collective.

Yuxuan Liu (NHS’23) is a second-year undergraduate at Georgetown University studying global health and a student in the Conversations in Global Health course.