Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second largest private funder of biomedical research, has been named the new chief scientist of the World Health Organization.
The appointment was announced Tuesday by the global health agency, which also revealed the appointment of Amelia Latu Afuhaamango Tuipulotu as WHO’s chief nursing officer. Tuipulotu, the former minister of health for the Kingdom of Tonga, will join WHO in the first quarter of 2023. Farrar will take up his new position in the second quarter of the new year.
“I am delighted that Jeremy and Amelia will join WHO at a critical time in global public health when investment in both the health workforce and science is imperative to strengthening health systems and outbreak preparedness and prevention,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
“As chief scientist, Jeremy will accelerate our efforts to ensure WHO, its member states and our partners benefit from cutting-edge, life-saving science and innovations. As chief nursing officer, Amelia will ignite the all-important need not only to fill the gap in health workers worldwide but also to ensure they receive the support they need and deserve.”
Farrar, who has led the Wellcome Trust for nearly a decade, will replace Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s first ever chief scientist. Swaminathan is returning to her native India to work on food systems and improving nutrition.
A neurologist by training, Farrar has long been involved in global health. Prior to taking the helm of the Wellcome Trust, Farrar spent 18 years as head of Oxford University’s Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, based at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City. He was there when Vietnam was hit, in 2003, with a new virus that had emerged from China, a virus the world now calls SARS-1. The group he led did critical research when Vietnam — along with much of South and Southeast Asia and North Africa — battled a panzootic of H5N1 bird flu that decimated poultry stocks and appeared for a while to be poised to start a deadly flu pandemic.
In an interview with STAT on Sunday — unrelated to his new appointment — Farrar expressed renewed concern about H5N1, which after years of relative quiescence has spread around the world, causing major losses in poultry flocks.
The current version of the virus infects people less frequently than did the version that was circulating in the mid-to-late aughts. And when human infections now occur, as did one in Colorado in the spring, the illness is now typically mild. He warned, though, that it shouldn’t be assumed the virus couldn’t regain virulence and become a greater threat to people.
Farrar takes the WHO job at a challenging time, when the world is trying to push past a pandemic that is still causing significant amounts of illness and deaths, but that many people wish to place firmly in the rearview mirror.
“I think we’ve moved on too quickly,” Farrar said, noting he fears there’s a “non-zero” risk that Covid will mutate again to a form where it causes more severe disease. “I don’t think we would go back to March 2020…. Five or six billion people have been infected globally, and we’ve all got some degree of protection against severe disease, which is what we care about. But I do think we’re playing with fire with this level of community transmission.”
He said the world needs to use a “moonshot” approach to spur development of better Covid vaccines, ones that would block transmission both of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid, and other coronaviruses lurking in nature, to “take the coronavirus family out of the equation.”