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CONNECTIONS: Building trust to beat the next pandemic


Launched in 2021, Texas Biomed’s Global Health Symposium aims to bring together leaders from research, healthcare, government, business and philanthropy to tackle global health challenges.

“Health and sustainable development are closely intertwined, but the people we need to collaborate with on these grand challenges are not often in the same room — we are seeking to change that with this symposium,” said Akudo Anyanwu, MD, MPH, Texas Biomed’s Vice President for Development.

The inaugural symposium was held online, as the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines were still rolling out. Global Health Corps Co-Founder Barbara Bush headlined the event, which focused on how to better prepare for the next pandemic.

This year, hundreds of attendees from around the world joined online and in person at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Discussions centered around the ongoing pandemic, with more data and opportunity for reflection about the past two years. One theme reverberated throughout: trust.

In her keynote address, CDC Foundation President and CEO Judith Monroe, MD, highlighted how previously established relationships with donors and recipients enabled quick resource mobilization in January 2020, well before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. With one phone call to a trusted partner, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the CDC Foundation activated its emergency response fund with $1 million the next day.

“That, my friends, is moving at the speed of trust,” Monroe said. She encouraged others to work during non-crisis times to establish partnerships and preposition philanthropic funding streams that can be rapidly distributed when emergencies arise.

In his keynote, Colorado State University System Chancellor Tony Frank, DVM, PhD, applauded the triumph of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines delivered within a year of the novel pathogen emerging. But failure of widespread uptake in a timely manner due to distrust, misinformation and fear was devastating.

“We should never allow the success of this vaccine story to be forgotten,” he said. “We can never allow the failure of this vaccine story to be forgotten either.”

To avoid history repeating itself, he encouraged scientists to shift away from only providing solutions and consider the bigger picture. Generations of historical distrust in healthcare and biomedical systems mean that no matter how great a solution, communities across the United States will not embrace it. Trust has to be built first.

“If we look beyond our labs, and past the parking lots where we park and see the communities around us, we can start to see that we’re not very connected to them,” Dr. Frank said. “Once we recognize that problem, we can see a path forward based on trust.”

He noted building trust will take time; it requires listening to communities to understand their needs, concerns and aspirations, and partnering with them to help them achieve their goals. It also requires incorporating community into scientific processes from the very beginning, not at the very end.

“These connections to people and places will determine whether our future innovations achieve the success that we haven’t achieved so far,” Dr. Frank said.

The symposium closed with a virtual visit from Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group. He spoke with Texas Biomed President/CEO Larry Schlesinger about his philosophy of “Screw it, Let’s do it.”

“My attitude in life is if you don’t try, there’s no way you’re going to succeed,” Branson said. “You may fall flat on your face … 99 out of 100 times, but on that 100th time, you might save a lot of lives.”

He also underscored the power of building relationships, even with people with seemingly diametrically opposite views. Branson shared that he actively looks for and often finds a lot of common ground, enabling him to work with more people for positive change.

“Most people are thoroughly decent,” Branson said. “It’s really important to realize that and to embrace people that you might think are so different than you, generally they’re not.”

For more information:

See the full 2022 agenda.

Watch at 2 minute highlight video from 2021.

Read 2021 preview story.

This story appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of TxBiomed magazine. See more stories from TxBiomed here.