Working Group on Global Health Security and Diplomacy Launched

A new, University-wide Working Group on Global Health Security and Diplomacy—based in the Department of Pediatrics—has been launched to help Columbia scientists and physicians make their expertise available to policymakers involved in global health security.

In today’s interconnected world, infectious diseases can spread across national boundaries faster than ever before. To prevent and mitigate these threats—and maintain global health security—policymakers need access to good information about managing health risks.

“The challenge to universities is whether they are making their research expertise available for the management of health risks—and in a form that makes a practical difference,” says Wilmot James, PhD, visiting professor in pediatrics and international affairs and special adviser to the group.

Because global health security involves multiple disciplines, the working group taps the expertise of Columbia faculty in several schools, including the Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the Earth Institute, and the School of International and Public Affairs.

The launch of the program was announced by President Lee Bollinger during a talk by Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum.

We recently spoke with James about the new group.

Q: Before coming to Columbia, you were a member of the South African parliament and your party’s Shadow Health Minister. What sparked your interest in coming to Columbia?

A: As the shadow health minister, I assisted with my country’s response to the Ebola outbreak. That's really where it started. The world’s response to Ebola was woefully inadequate, largely because we were unable to mount a capable interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral approach.

Columbia stands out among many other institutions in its interdisciplinary initiatives and its global reach. From the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the School of International and Public Affairs, to the Earth Institute—there are highly sophisticated intellectual assets that could more usefully support governments, civil bodies, and professional associations prevent, mitigate, and respond to health catastrophes.

Q: What approach will you take to improve the impact of our expertise on policymakers?

A: Launched in 2014 by then Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Global Health Security Agenda provides a global platform that supports innovations in the detection, prevention, and response to epidemic outbreaks. Our working group has affiliated with the Agenda and is a participating partner in the body that assesses country preparedness—the Joint External Evaluation (JEE) Alliance—to deal with outbreaks. We therefore have ready access to policymakers to shape the direction and help effect intervention that matters.

Q: Is there a way medical and graduate students can get involved?

A: We also want to contribute to the education of the next generation of health leaders in the art and science of advancing global health security and diplomacy. In responding to global health emergencies, what’s really crucial is an ability to launch a multi-government response. You have to get multiple governments to cooperate quickly and deal with a wide range of issues, not just health but also justice, immigration, aviation, and defense. But such horizontal governance is new, and soft power diplomacy is needed to make it happen.

I am teaching a course—Global Health Security and Diplomacy—at SIPA to introduce students to the field. The course is also open to medical, public health, nursing, dentistry, international affairs, climate science, economics, development, engineering, law, political science, and journalism graduate students and some senior undergraduate students.

Students can also get involved by attending our public events where we feature great speakers who are expert in their field.

Q: The working group has a special interest in children. What special attention do they need in a global health emergency?

A: Children suffer disproportionately during epidemic and pandemic outbreaks. They do not respond to medical therapies in the same way as adults. The International Health Regulations—regulations that define norms and rules countries have to follow in order to detect, report, and respond to public health events of international concern—do not make adequate provision for children. Children don’t have the ability to act in their own interests to change policy; adults need to act on their behalf to bring about the necessary changes.


Lawrence Stanberry, MD, PhD, chair of pediatrics, is director of the Working Group; Madeleine Thomson, PhD, senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia’s Earth Institute, is co-director.

Members of the Working Group’s steering committee are Stephen Nicholas, MD, professor of pediatrics and senior associate dean for admissions, Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons; Marc Grodman, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine; Merit Janow, PhD, dean, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs; and Steven Cohen, PhD, executive director, Columbia University’s Earth Institute.