Preparing for the worst, informed by the best at Brown’s Pandemic Center

As the inaugural director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University’s School of Public Health, Jennifer Nuzzo is positioning Brown to lead the way forward in stopping pandemics and the harms they pose across society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the world’s eyes to the broad impact biological emergencies can have and the many ways in which our systems are unprepared to handle them. The Pandemic Center at Brown’s School of Public Health is drawing on the University’s faculty expertise and its extensive interactions with policymakers to better understand catastrophic biological events and develop the tools and practices necessary to effectively combat the next occurrence. 

To achieve this, Brown recruited Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and expert in global health security to lead the center. She brings a wealth of experience in generating and analyzing data-driven evidence, advising policymakers, and engaging with the media.

Why did you choose to come to Brown?

I've been working on pandemic preparedness for about 20 years, and I thought we had some issues figured out. But, seeing how much all countries—including the United States—struggled during COVID-19, it became abundantly clear that we needed to rethink how we talk about pandemics and prepare for them. Some of our biggest challenges weren’t necessarily medical or public health issues; they were social, behavioral, economic, political. I realized that if we really want to make meaningful progress, we have to address pandemic preparedness as an interdisciplinary issue. And to do that, I would need access to scholars from those other fields. When I looked at the list of places that not only had a strong public health program but also top-notch scholars in multiple other fields, Brown was clearly at the top of the list.


In the short time you have been at Brown, what are your impressions of its research environment?

I came to Brown knowing that it was famous for having a spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration. And I’m happy to say that that fame is real. Scholars from all parts of the University are reaching out to each other, rolling up their sleeves, and trying to figure out how they can apply their skills to complex problems. It’s been really rewarding for me to connect with people outside of the School of Public Health and throughout the University about this important work.

Lessons from urban fires


Pandemic Center Director Jennifer Nuzzo discusses what urban fires can teach us about mitigating future pandemics.

A portion of your expertise is in health security. Can you talk about this field and its relation to pandemic preparedness and response?

I actually got my start in the preparedness field following the events of September 11, 2001. That was something that catapulted many people who were working in public health to suddenly be thinking about security-related issues. We were looking at disease trends, wondering if there was something unusual happening, and that really gave birth to the field of health security as it exists now. I think what health security tells us is that the health of people is important for all aspects of a country's peace and prosperity. It's not just important to protect our health for the moral reasons that we do that, but also because it’s essential for our national security. It's essential for our economic prosperity.

The Pandemic Center is a new initiative of the Brown School of Public Health. How are you building its capacity to create change?

We have built the Pandemic Center on a few principles. One is that pandemics, when they happen, touch all of health and all of society. To be adequately prepared for pandemics, we have to concern ourselves with all of the health impacts, the social impacts, the economic impacts, the political impacts. We can't just focus on a pathogen. We have to be concerned with all of the other impacts that happen and make sure our plans are appropriately inclusive so that we don't inadvertently make those things worse. One of the other central premises of the Pandemic Center is that our social vulnerabilities are our pandemic vulnerabilities. We have to develop pandemic preparedness plans that are centered around those equity issues, those social vulnerabilities, such that we don't just develop plans that only work for a fraction of society and leave many people behind.

The ultimate goal of the center is to generate the evidence that we need to make our societies more resilient in the face of pandemic threats. We want to be able to prevent pandemics, but if we don't, we need to be able to be resilient to them so that they never again upend our lives. We also have to work actively and intensively to synthesize what we learn from that evidence and take it to the people who make the decisions. That means engaging with policymakers, decision makers, practitioners, the general public, and the media. Engaging in that translational piece is going to constitute the bulk of our work.

The idea of pandemic preparedness seems overwhelming in scope. Are you hopeful that we can learn from the past and make the changes necessary to weather these situations in the future?

It’s absolutely something we can do. We have to build the political will. We also have to generate the evidence that shows us that those investments have value and return on investment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m happy to be here with access to other scholars who can help in terms of building the evidence base for preparedness. One of the things we need to do is to take full stock of how COVID-19 has affected us. It’s not just the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths. It’s also how COVID has disrupted schools and harmed children's growth and development. It’s understanding how it has deepened inequities in our society. It’s understanding how businesses have had to pivot and change course. We need to understand it all so that we can build better plans for future pandemics that take all of this into account.

One area where I’d really like to see us grow the evidence is in understanding how COVID deepened our inequities. We need to make sure that equity is at the center of all of the plans that we have for future pandemics. Equity is a global issue for sure, and we saw evidence of inequity in all countries. But certainly here in the United States, there’s clear evidence that inequities were perhaps one of the biggest risk factors for pandemic harms.

The Pandemic Center is also establishing an office in Washington, D.C. How will that help move the work forward?

Our Washington, D.C. office is, by design, located next to the Brown in D.C. internship office. We coordinate with them, and our faculty there work with those students. We’re also building a database of potential internships for people who are interested in pandemic issues. The plan is that we will be doing more events and potentially even teaching courses out of our Washington, D.C. space. 

We were also very fortunate to have recruited Beth Cameron to take on the role of professor of the practice and senior advisor to the Pandemic Center. She is based in the D.C. office, and she is famous in the nation’s capital for making change. She’s a longtime expert in biosecurity, health security, and national security. She’s thrilled to interact with our students and engage with the next generation because she knows we need new ideas, passion, and energy.

I came to Brown knowing that it was famous for having a spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration. And I’m happy to say that that fame is real. Scholars from all parts of the University are reaching out to each other, rolling up their sleeves, and trying to figure out how they can apply their skills to complex problems.

Jennifer Nuzzo Director, The Pandemic Center
Jennifer Nuzzo, inaugural director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University's School of Public Health, posing outdoors.

What are some key resources philanthropy can provide for the center?

It would be really helpful to have a flexible set of funds that would allow us to be responsive to rising policy issues, to take on new research projects, host new meetings, and organize translational events as the world changes. When I came here to Brown, we were talking about COVID-19. A few months later, we were talking about the mpox (formerly called monkeypox) outbreaks that were happening across the world. Now we’re talking about H5N1, avian influenza. With each of these events, there are opportunities for us to do work and to be out there spreading evidence. Unrestricted funds allow us to do that work and to stay nimble.

Another form of support that would be quite beneficial would be support for students. We have many students who want to get involved with the Pandemic Center through research assistantships. Funding would support those students as they gain experience working with us, write publications, and attend meetings and events. Lastly, funding could help us sponsor and host events with policymakers, decision makers, and practitioners in Washington, D.C. This will allow us to stay plugged into all of the conversations that are happening and make sure we can take the best evidence from here at Brown to the decision makers that need it.

Why should donors be interested in giving to support the Pandemic Center at this moment in time?

Because of the outsized role that Brown has played in the COVID-19 pandemic response, we have an opportunity to continue to grow our global reputation and continue to make real change in terms of improving people’s lives around the world. There are many faculty who are working on these issues at Brown, but the Pandemic Center can integrate all of that work, elevate it, amplify it, and translate it into real-world changes that make us safer, happier, healthier.

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