The Health of the World
Drawing on his experience as a public health and immunization expert with the CDC and his current role with pharma giant Merck, Dr. Mawuli Nyaku ’03 shares a hopeful outlook on COVID-19 vaccine adoption.D
r. Mawuli Nyaku ’03 remains strikingly optimistic that COVID-19 vaccines will see widespread adoption, even as the global pandemic persists and more and more Americans decline once-standard vaccinations.
“When I look at the immunization system in the United States, what I’m happy about is that [those who choose not to vaccinate] are a small minority,” said Nyaku. “So although I think there is some negative sentiment around COVID-19 vaccines, I think a significant part of the population will be getting them provided clinical trials demonstrate safety and efficacy.”
A seasoned public health expert and epidemiologist, Nyaku has led multiple efforts to boost vaccine coverage in the U.S. and worldwide for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He is now global director of medical affairs for pediatric vaccines at the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which has two COVID-19 vaccines and one antiviral therapy in the pipeline. He also served as one of Conn’s health advisers last summer, helping the college develop protocols so that it could reopen with students, faculty, and staff in the fall.
Nyaku says that clinical trials are due to start this year, and though Merck won’t be the first to market, he hopes that its considered approach toward a single-dose shot will reach more people more quickly.
“We’re really thinking critically, because we recognize that this is not the last pandemic we’re going to have around coronaviruses. Making sure we’re getting this right the first time is critical,” said Nyaku.
A PREMED MAJOR at Conn, public health wasn’t always in the cards for Nyaku, but he had an eye-opening experience with the Holleran Center’s Program in Community Action, which bridges classroom study and community engagement.
In a class with Professor of Human Development Sunil Bhatia, students were asked to choose a location in New London, go there, and watch what happened.
“I thought it was the most ridiculous assignment. Why would anyone in their right mind just go sit somewhere and stare into space?” recalled Nyaku, who has joined Bhatia for a campus lecture on vaccine skepticism. But his professor’s insistence on the pragmatic value of observation has become integral to Nyaku’s work.
On that bench in the New London train station, Nyaku first realized that an “ethnography” approach, as he calls it, is key to medical professionals understanding disease—why it is so prevalent or how it affects different parts of a population. And when considering a treatment regimen, he still takes this tack.
“The societal perspective is really critical,” he explained. “You don’t just come up with an intervention in a vacuum. Public health strategies are “not going to work if you don’t truly understand the root” of people’s behavioral differences.
Nyaku went on to receive master’s degrees in public health and in business administration, and a doctorate in epidemiology and international health. His career at the CDC also began during this time when Nyaku contacted several CDC scientists and offered to help with their research. One Friday evening, “I got a phone call from one of the principal investigators [on tropical diseases]. She basically asked me if I could get on a plane to Nigeria the next day.”
Nyaku said yes.
On the ground in Nigeria, he helped conduct a survey of certain neglected tropical diseases caused by parasitic worms.
“These diseases affect some of the poorest people on earth—about a billion people are at risk at this point in time,” said Nyaku. Providing the incorrect treatment can also result in death, so “you need to know what the actual disease burden is, and then you tailor your intervention according to that.”
After his success there, Nyaku was recruited by the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria to provide technical assistance to ministries of health in under-resourced countries. From there, Nyaku was accepted to the CDC’s prestigious Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), which offers a two-year field program on responding to epidemic outbreaks. Posted to Michigan, Nyaku responded to airborne and foodborne outbreaks, led efforts to prepare communities for environmental disaster, and even investigated a case of contaminated steroids that had been put into circulation by a compounding pharmacy.
Working these cases taught Nyaku a lesson about the nature of bureaucratic competition, as well as public health.
“It gave me a good grounding in public health and how complex it is, because it’s not just the state—you have CDC involvement, the local health departments, and the county health departments [to work with]. It’s complex, and everyone doesn’t always trust everyone else in those situations.”
Nyaku’s experience in disease outbreaks and public health was put to good use this year, when he was asked by Conn President Katherine Bergeron to serve on a panel of alumni charged with guiding the college as it discussed reopening safely. The panel convened weekly to deliberate on how best to bring students, faculty, and staff back in the fall.
“We had in-depth discussions around the current scientific evidence on COVID-19 and considerations for resuming classes in the fall,” said Nyaku.
“I was more than happy to leverage my extensive experience from conducting and leading several infectious disease outbreak investigations and, most importantly, to give back to the college in a time of need. The plans currently in place are extremely rigorous and should severely limit disease transmission.”