As the U.S. and the world continue to grapple with the health impacts and seismic disruptions to daily life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 300 members of the Stevens Institute of Technology community registered to attend a virtual talk delivered by Dr. Rohit Chitale, an infectious disease epidemiologist with 20 years of experience in preventing, detecting and responding to emerging infectious diseases globally.
Dr. Chitale, whose work focuses on disease prevention and detection technology development at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), joined Stevens as the inaugural speaker of the President's Special Lecture Series on Pandemics September 23.
Stevens President Nariman Farvardin, who launched the series to advance understanding of the COVID-19 experience for the Stevens community with featured talks by a wide range of distinguished intellectuals on the scientific, technological, historical, political, cultural and economic aspects of pandemics, introduced Dr. Chitale.
“We are honored to have [Dr. Rohit Chitale] join us today for an insightful look at what pandemics are to explain some of the tools used to monitor, evaluate and mitigate pandemics, and to share lessons for the future with respect to COVID-19 and other high consequence pathogens,” President Farvardin said.
Effective pandemic strategy: prevent, detect, respond
“Epidemiology has really been my platform for me to learn science, medicine and informatics and apply it to solving health-related challenges,” revealed Dr. Chitale, who has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on programs related to preventing or eradicating infectious diseases including malaria, HIV and polio.
In the lecture, titled “Preventing Pandemics: Tools of the Trade,” Dr. Chitale gave a historical overview of pandemics and how current institutions, agencies and networks came to be established in response to past pandemics.
“We’re living through a once in a 50-year or 100-year type of pandemic. Yet there are pandemics that are happening every year and all the time. That’s what we deal with in this field,” he explained, citing as an example of a pandemic that continues to this day (HIV/AIDS) for which there is no vaccine.
Dr. Chitale looked back at hundreds of years of global health milestones, beginning with the Black Death in the 1300s to the early 1900s in which a string of deadly infectious diseases including small pox, cholera, plague and yellow fever provoked nations to coalesce around an international legal framework – the International Health Regulations (IHR) – in responding to those global threats.
The IHR, which was revised in 2005, was a critical governance tool that contributed greatly to public health response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-15, Dr. Chitale noted. Rather than banning all flights from the region, the U.S. worked with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Immigration and American Citizenship Organization (IACO) to funnel all flights that came from West Africa to six U.S. airports equipped with intensified screening.
That response, Chitale explained, was commensurate with the public health risks, avoiding unnecessary interference in international traffic and trade while retaining respect for human rights.
“We didn’t tell people from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Nigeria that you couldn’t go home [to the U.S.]. That didn’t happen. The IHR was brilliant and we had [only] 11 cases of Ebola in this country, when there were tens of thousands in West Africa. A really, really amazing success.”
Leveraging the power of networks via the DoD and CDC are crucial tools in preventing pandemics, he emphasized.
In the case of the DoD, the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance (GEIS), formed during President Bill Clinton’s administration, was ahead of its time, he said.
“The DoD responded first and said we are going to create a capability that will expand and include support of global surveillance, training research and responses to emerging infections.”
A decade later, the CDC established the Global Disease Detection (GDD) program in 2004.
“It was the U.S. Congress that appropriated money to basically have a capability at CDC that would help mitigate the consequences of a catastrophic public health event, whether intentional, terrorism or a natural emergence of a deadly infectious virus,” explained Dr. Chitale, who co-established the Global Disease Detection Operations Center after joining the CDC in 2006.
Constant surveillance is key to detecting what he qualified as an “event,” one that is: unusual or unexpected; has a serious impact on public health; has the potential to interfere with travel or trade; and is very likely to spread internationally.
“You don’t get a baseline unless you’re doing surveillance all the time,” he noted.
And while an event can be described or characterized in different ways, it’s more complicated than that, he added.
“It’s not just the characterization. It’s a ‘put it on the map, characterize it and then respond.’ That’s really the point here,” Dr. Chitale said. “Prevent, detect and respond is really the way that the global health security agenda looks at things in that timescale.”
Join Stevens for the next President's Special Lecture Series on Pandemics on Wednesday, October 28, 2020, featuring Dr. Frank Snowden, the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History & History of Medicine at Yale University.
For more information about the President's Special Lecture Series on Pandemics, please visit stevens.edu/about-stevens/leadership/office-president/presidents-special-lecture-series-pandemics.