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STPF Fellows Combat the Pandemic

Ambika Bumb with her dad and daughter.

Flagging the appearance of a cluster of strange illnesses in China in late 2019. Mobilizing the response to get people back to the United States in early 2020 when the disease began to spread rapidly. Forecasting the possible impacts to gross domestic product as a result of widespread illness and shutdowns. Reviewing vaccines and developing related communication materials.

This is just a sampling of the efforts AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows (STPF) were involved in as the SARS-CoV-19 virus emerged in late 2019 and flared into a global pandemic. Several fellows began their tenures only weeks before the virus began its deadly march around the world. They described an intense transition from their initial expectations for how their fellowships would unfold to finding themselves in critical nerve centers for pandemic response.

Matt Ferreira, who pursued a degree in public health and epidemiology after training as a veterinarian at Tufts University, started his STPF fellowship in the Directorate of Operational Medicine at the State Department in November 2019. By late December, through his professional networks, he started hearing about a cluster of severe pneumonia of unknown origin in Wuhan, China. With an academic interest in zoonoses–diseases transmitted to humans from animals–hearing that the outbreak may be linked to a seafood market set off alarm bells for him.

Being so new to the office, Ferreira nervously composed an email with many recipients who might be interested to know what he knew about the outbreak, and what he thought it was: a novel coronavirus.

His boss was interested, so Ferreira kept sending updates. While Ferreira wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the activity in Wuhan, he says he hopes his presence in the office gave his office a head start on preparations for the eventual evacuation of Americans from the country.

“Our office had already been thinking about the problem for a month and we were able to put a plan into action very quickly,” Ferreira says. He was also later involved in efforts to distribute vaccines to U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.(Read more about his unit, State’s Operational Medicine, in “Inside the Secretive Government Unit Saving American Lives Around the World,” Vanity Fair, May 6, 2021.)

Ambika Bumb, an entrepreneur and nanomaterials and medical engineering specialist, also started her fellowship in 2019 at the State Department’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy (CMS) just prior to the outbreak. Bumb is the first STPF fellow to serve at CMS, which is situated within the Office of the Secretary.

Initially her role was to translate and communicate the academic medical data and information that began to trickle, flow and eventually flood out from universities and research centers, which contributed to the formation of a round-the-clock response team to bring Americans home from abroad. As a Crisis Management Officer for the Repatriation Task Force, Bumb assisted with coordinating travel for more than 100,000 people on over 1,100 flights from around the world, aneffort formally lauded by both the State Department and the U.S. Senate.

Every story was personal. “Medications running out, grandparents isolated somewhere, people who lived up a river and needed get on a raft to get to a town to get on a plane–there’s never been anything on this scale in State’s history,” Bumb says. Coordinating most of the work virtually, while under the same pandemic restrictions domestically as were unfolding internationally, added to the challenges exponentially.

While medicine, logistics and communication are natural fits with crisis response, quantum physics probably isn’t something that readily jumps to mind. For applied mathematician Gordon Aiello, it did.

Gordon Aiello
Gordon Aiello

A fellow at the Office of Monetary Affairs (OMA) at State, Aiello was working on developing mathematical models to predict the exposure of a particular country or economy to a crisis–not necessarily biological, but any sort of shock that could destabilize economic activity. He initially pitched quantitative finance techniques that were influenced by quantum field theory–Feynman path integrals–but at the end of the day, a more natural approach emerged: using epidemiology to estimate the economic impacts of an infectious disease outbreak.

Using data from previous real-world crises, eight of 10 scenarios tested showed Aiello’s model would have correctly predicted the eventual economic fallout that actually resulted. Though it wasn’t on anyone’s radars in October 2019 when Aiello started at OMA, when Covid did eventually land, OMA’s models suggested much slower growth for the US and China’s first-quarter GDP than the big banks were predicting in early 2020.

“We weren’t trying to compete with the big banks on this–just looking at things from a slightly different point of view,” Aiello says.

And though he’s gratified that the model ultimately proved out, Aiello says the work continues: like a quantum particle, the subject is changed just by being observed. New data are required to keep the model updated: variants, new patterns of spread, how vaccines have an impact.

Communications around vaccines were a subject of Caitlin Burgdorf’s fellowship work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. On a working group to identify and select experts in vaccine and health communication, hesitancy and misinformation, Burgdorf assisted in efforts to shape the creation of a white paper and one-pager tip sheet released on the same day as the FDA emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine on December 11, 2020.

Burgdorf, a neuroscientist, says the collaboration was an intense effort, condensed into a dizzying timeframe. She assisted with curating conversations from expert workshops, summarizing relevant scientific publications to incorporate into the guide, and maintaining the diversity of perspectives presented by experts. Throughout the process, she says, she and her team worked to maintain a heightened awareness of how the guidance would be received and used by the broader public—while working at lightning-fast speed.

“The process was an extremely insightful experience–I’ve never before had to balance the perspectives and priorities of so many scientific experts in a final written product,” Burgdorf says.