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March 14, 2021

Establishing Collective Action in Health: A Conversation with Dr. Margaret Hamburg

By Erica Kim (SFS’24)

On March 9, 2021, the Conversations in Global Health lecture series welcomed Dr. Margaret Hamburg, foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine. Prior to her current position, Dr. Hamburg served as the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, vice president and senior scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and New York City health commissioner. With an extensive background both in medical research and health policy, Dr. Hamburg reflected on her professional career and provided a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary perspective on health in the context of global diplomacy and social justice, offering illuminating feedback on the COVID-19 global response.

When asked about the significance of partnerships between pharmaceutical companies in producing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, such as the one between Johnson & Johnson and Merck that was announced at the beginning of March, Dr. Hamburg underscored the necessity for public-private partnerships. “I think that the ability to advance the vaccine development process was aided not just by working across disciplines and sectors, but also working across borders,” she remarked, and while the vast progress scientific institutions and regulatory authorities have made in the past year is certainly commendable, Dr. Hamburg recognizes that industries and governments must continue to collaborate until vaccines are distributed to every country in the world. Furthermore, expanding upon this pivotal concern of international engagement, she explained that health is best approached as a tool for global diplomacy. Through multilateral vaccination efforts like the COVAX initiative, countries must recognize health to be a universal right and ensure that vaccines are equally distributed to populations that lack access to health care. As illustrated in her article articulating a global health action agenda for the Biden administration, the United States should contribute to this collective action and advance global strategies for vaccine access by investing more in vaccine manufacturing and the COVAX facility itself. Regardless of the political state or societal conflict, every nation must devote to and comply with multifaceted global interventions that build upon the cooperation of world leaders and organizations not only to mitigate the devastating impacts of the current pandemic for each population, but also to grasp how to productively handle new and emerging threats in global health.

Dr. Hamburg’s profound insights to approaching both the COVID-19 pandemic and the very concept of “health,” as well-exemplified in the Washington Post and Nuclear Threat Initiative, was eye-opening. Considering the deep-rooted issues within the domestic health care system today, tainted by layers of implicit biases in race, sex, and socioeconomic status, I have always considered health to be divisive, provoking endless political dissent. However, I now realize how it could also be a unifying factor that could effectively bridge gaps between communities through diverse building blocks within the global health industry.

Erica Kim (SFS’24) is an undergraduate with an anticipated major in science, technology, and international affairs and a student in the Conversations in Global Health course.