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The Sammies Series: Q&A with McKinsey and a Sammies finalist whose Ebola antiviral treatment has the potential to save thousands of lives

By Parker Schaffel
December 18, 2020

When Ebola swept through several African countries between 2014 and 2016, those responding lacked an effective treatment for the deadly epidemic. Of the nearly 30,000 people sickened by the disease, more than one-third died.  

That’s when Nancy Sullivan, chief of the Vaccine Research Center’s Biodefense Research Section at the National Institutes of Health, stepped in. She and her team developed an effective antiviral infusion treatment for the Ebola virus that saved nearly 90% of the patients who participated in clinical trials conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. The results capped Sullivan’s two-decade effort to identify, administer and manufacture effective Ebola vaccines and treatments.

Dr. Matt Craven, a partner at McKinsey & Company who has also worked extensively on infectious diseases, interviewed Sullivan about her selection as a finalist for a 2020 Service to America Medal in the Science and Environment category.

Craven: Could you tell us a little bit about your work?

Sullivan: I discovered a monoclonal antibody that can be used to treat people with Ebola. This work was informed by a lot of basic research that I conducted over many years to understand the way the virus gets into cells and takes over. Unlike a lot of viruses that infect one type of tissue, whether it’s in the respiratory tract or the gastrointestinal tract, Ebola goes everywhere. It even gets into the brain. So, a lot of my early work involved understanding that virus-host interaction.

Not only has this antibody moved forward to actually treat patients, but it is also helping us understand immune protection against other filoviruses. That’s what makes me excited to come to work every day. Getting recognition is great, but I really am 100% motivated by what happens here in the lab and getting trainees as excited about our progress as I am.

Craven: It’s rare that one person gets to work on so many aspects of developing a biomedical product. How does being a public servant allow you to do that?

The Vaccine Research Center was conceived by Dr. Fauci. President Bill Clinton said, ‘Tony, what do we need to get an AIDS vaccine?’ And Dr. Fauci answered, ‘Well, we need one center that has everything from very basic bench scientists, to people who can do in vivo work in [living] animals, to immunologists, structural biologists, manufacturing and clinical trials. We wanted that all-in-one center. It’s a paradigm that others are trying to model now as they recognize the need for pandemic preparedness.

Craven: Let’s step back from the Ebola treatment and talk about COVID-19. There’s been a lot written about the federal government’s response. How can government respond effectively to new infectious diseases as they emerge?

Sullivan: I think we’ve learned a lot over the years, dealing with different outbreak scenarios. In 2014 with Ebola and shortly after that, Zika, I think all the government agencies knew that we had to work together. But it was more reactive than proactive, and it felt like we were playing catch up and chasing this thing to try to stay on top of it. That was an eye-opener that indicated we needed to be more forward-looking.

With COVID-19, I think we incorporated the lessons we learned. Julie Ledgerwood is the chief medical officer of the Vaccine Research Center, and she has been instrumental in using analytics to predict where the cases will be so scientists can stay ahead of the curve for testing, vaccines and testing therapeutics. That’s what the government can do and what the government should do.

Craven: There’s a very narrow window to talk about preparedness, and then we forget, and we move on. How do we prevent that this time?

Sullivan: In my mind, the more difficult part is knowing that a lot of these things are going to happen in places that are resource poor, have very difficult public health problems already and have little financial support for public health infrastructure. So, if the U.S. wants to protect its population, we probably need to help build up some of those countries that are likely to be the origin of deadly disease.

Craven: Let’s talk about public service. What would you say to a young scientist with opportunities to work in academia or the private sector about a government position?

Sullivan: All of us who work in government still have opportunities to work in academia and industry. I think there are opportunities here that you might not get elsewhere. We do high-risk things and some people are well-suited for that. If you want to push the envelope on different things, I think the public sector is a good place to work. Also, to know that you’re providing a direct benefit to people is a reward that you’re probably not going to get in other places. I look forward to coming to work every day because of the level of collaboration and discussion, and the ability to make things happen.

Read Nancy Sullivan’s Service to America Medals profile for more on her work on an Ebola antiviral treatment, and visit McKinsey & Company to learn about the organization’s mission. For more on this year’s Sammies virtual awards program, read Inspiring Stories from this year’s Service to America Medals.

Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.

This post is part of a series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 


Parker Schaffel