Ian Lipkin Delivers Hamied Lecture on Strengthening Global Infectious Disease Response

July 9, 2020

Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) and John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, delivered the third annual Yusuf Hamied Distinguished Lecture organized by the Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai. The lecture addressed the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases and why global partnerships are crucial to preventing pandemics like COVID-19.

The annual Hamied lectures—one in Mumbai and one in New York City—are named for Yusuf K. Hamied, a Columbia Mailman board member and chair of the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Cipla who was a key figure in making affordable HIV medicines available to low-income counties. The lectures complement the Yusuf Hamied Fellowship program, which supports research collaboration between scholars in India and Columbia Mailman faculty.

Lipkin, who delivered the lecture via Zoom as global COVID-19 cases continue to rise, was introduced by Dean Linda P. Fried following welcoming remarks by Ravina Aggarwal, director of Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai. He began by situating the virus responsible for the pandemic in context, explaining that there are at least 320,000 mammalian viruses in circulation globally, according to a 2013 estimate by his lab. The vast majority of these viruses have not been cataloged or assessed for their potential to harm humans. Lipkin said the estimated cost of discovery would be approximately $6.3 billion, which may seem like a big number but is in fact “a drop in the bucket in the context of COVID,” adding that pandemics come with a massive financial burden, not just the human toll of disease and death.

The chances that one of these undiscovered viruses becomes the next pandemic is increasingly likely as humans encroach on animal habitats (animals are the likely origin of COVID-19). And in an interconnected world, small outbreaks spread rapidly through international air travel. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is extending the range of insect vectors like the aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads dengue, yellow fever, Zika, and other disease agents.

Models of Rapid Response and Global Partnership

Thankfully, pandemics are not inevitable; good science and rapid interventions can stop them in their tracks. Lipkin cited an outbreak of Lujo virus after it infected and killed a woman on safari in Zambia, and did the same for three medical professionals who cared for her. Another nurse involved in the cluster was properly diagnosed with Luju and given treatment to save her life. “This [case] illustrates the importance of early recognition and early response,” said Lipkin. “Had we done this COVID-19, we might be looking at a very different situation.”

Two years ago, the director of the Indian Council of Medical Research invited Lipkin to investigate outbreaks of a mysterious illness killing children in northeast India. He explained how his lab used cutting-edge methods to reexamine clinical samples previously studied by scientists in India and the U.S. The analysis revealed two pathogens responsible for the outbreak, both of which are treatable with antibiotics. As a result, the fatality rate has started to decline. “It’s important to know that these kinds of collaborations can have practical results,” he said.

confronting COVID-19 and the Effort to Prevent the Next Pandemic

This January, Lipkin traveled to China to meet with scientists working to contain the early spread of the disease later called COVID-19. Among these scientists were those he worked with back in 2003 when he advised the country during SARS. Since the January trip, the Center and Infection and Immunity has developed a rapid test called C3 to diagnose COVID-19. The diagnostic is available pro bono to other research institutions. Lipkin’s lab is also leading studies to test how blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors can be used to prevent infections in healthcare workers and first responders, high-risk individuals, and close contacts of COVID-19 patients, and whether it can treat COVID-19 patients with severe disease.  

Yet because science is insufficient in a world where many are skeptical of scientists, Lipkin has been involved in efforts to educate the public about the threat of infectious diseases and the importance of measures like vaccines to prevent their spread. (He says an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is “the only way out” of the pandemic.) In March, Lipkin, who served as the scientific advisor on the pandemic thriller Contagion, reunited with the film’s creators and actors to script a series of PSAs about various ways people can protect themselves from a coronavirus infection.

The lecture concluded with a description of a bold new initiative called the Global Infectious Disease Epidemiology Network (GIDEoN). With seed funding through the Skoll Foundation, GIDEoN is creating the infrastructure to facilitate the sharing of technology and data to promote global situational awareness and response, including the rapid development of therapies and vaccines. The goal is to build global capacity for infectious disease surveillance in order to prevent the next COVID-19. “This is not the last threat,” Lipkin said, “it may not even be the worst.”