Lessons from dual pandemics
A conversation with Merck Chief Patient Officer Julie Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., about her early work caring for people with HIV and AIDS, and the parallels of the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics
July 6, 2020
Dr. Julie Gerberding vividly remembers the intense stigma of HIV during the early days of the epidemic. In the 1980s, Julie was a new physician caring for patients with AIDS at San Francisco General Hospital.
“Stigma was a barrier to identifying people with infection. It was a barrier to assuring that patients with HIV and AIDS received empathy and care that was proper and humane. It was a barrier to investment in advanced therapeutics,” said Julie. “So, we needed to fight stigma not just at the bedside. We had to fight the battle in the communities and the businesses in San Francisco, and with the legislators who were responsible for appropriating resources to support care and treatment.”
Over time, San Francisco General Hospital would become the premier hospital for AIDS patients in the U.S., having developed a model of HIV care that became the global gold standard.
“We recognized our city as a hot bed of new infections, and instead of retreating because of fear, our team really did say, ‘let’s be the best,’” said Julie. “Let’s be the most caring place for anyone with this illness to receive the best possible care, the best nursing, and the best social services. We immersed ourselves in training other health professionals and furthering research. Sharing stories of our patients eventually helped get the San Francisco community aligned with what we needed to do as a city to address the pandemic.”
Julie says these early career experiences continue to guide her professional life.
“I became a better doctor because we didn’t have effective therapies for HIV. I had to learn to listen to my patients and address their needs beyond their health care in ways that extended my own understanding and human empathy. I became the kind of physician that listened first and treated later. Caring and listening are things I will always try to carry forward as Merck’s chief patient officer.”
Growing threat of infectious diseases
Julie continued her education in infectious diseases and public health while advancing research at San Francisco General Hospital until 1998, when she joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. In 2002, she was named director of the CDC and led the agency through multiple global infectious disease outbreaks during her tenure.
“We live in a world that is designed, in a sense, for the emergence of new infectious diseases, which we are seeing now with COVID-19."
Dr. Julie Gerberding
“The increased contact that we have with animal sources of infection, the crowding of our societies, climate change, the fact that there are millions of forcibly displaced people in the world—all of these factors change the ecology of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases will continue to emerge, and we will need to continue working extremely hard to catch up with them.”
Merck recently announced new collaborations to develop two potential vaccines targeting SARS-CoV-2 for the prevention of COVID-19, and advance development of an antiviral candidate currently in early clinical development for the treatment of patients with COVID-19.
“There are many similarities between the COVID-19 and the HIV pandemics,” said Julie. “They’re wicked problems and no sector can solve either alone. Both must be approached through collaboration and broad partnerships where stakeholders bring their best capabilities and assets to the table and share with others.
“Just as we have a long legacy in fighting HIV, Merck is committed to being a significant player in the global effort to confront COVID-19. We have deep expertise in infectious disease research, and we have made important contributions to fighting pandemics for more than 125 years. Infectious diseases research is in our DNA.
“It has been said that with COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe,” said Julie. “We care deeply about the human toll of this virus, and the patients and families who’ve been impacted. And yet we have good reason to be optimistic. The global mobilization to tackle this disease has been unprecedented, and working together, we are rising to the challenge.”
Leaving an impact
Recently, Julie’s alma mater, University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, recognized her as one of “Sixteen women who changed public health” for her work while at the CDC during multiple public health threats.
Julie L. Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., is chief patient officer and executive vice president for strategic communications, global public policy, and population health at Merck.