A walk in the park.
This is the first of a series of interviews of Geneva-based leaders done by Renu Chahil-Graf while walking through Geneva’s green spaces. This week Renu interviewed Seth Berkley, the CEO of the international vaccination organisation Gavi. Seth has been on the cover of the magazine Newsweek, recognised by Wired Magazine as among “The Wired 25”, and was listed by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2009.
Everybody loves a walk. No less, Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) headquartered in Geneva. In fact, he would conduct most meetings while walking, were it not for the tiresome need of his staff to take notes, on desks.
Seth’s mind works at jet speed. His thoughts, his ideas, his vision, his challenges, his solutions are communicated with such passion that they would be overwhelming if not so clearly expressed. So yes, everyone better have pen and paper handy!
A transformational moment in Uganda
Deservedly, Seth Berkley can be proud of his achievements. With medical degrees and training from Brown and Harvard universities under his belt, work in US state and federal environments, Seth had done it all before heading out to Uganda in the late nineteen-eighties. As a young epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health, he was sure there was a mistake in the analyses when they did the first blood survey and discovered mind-blowing levels of HIV infection. He calls this a “transformational” moment. After helping craft the first Ugandan National AIDS Plan, Seth returned to New York to join the Rockefeller Foundation.
Raising over US$1 billion for AIDS
But some years later, he took the courageous step of founding the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). It was 1996, a time when there was much unease about where the global AIDS epidemic was heading. And there was no solution in sight. With his indefatigable energy and ability to convince, Seth raised over a billion dollars in the 15 years he served as President and CEO of IAVI. With this funding he established the first public-private sector partnership to develop vaccines and testing around the world.
Goodbye NYC, Hello Geneva
It is no wonder then that Gavi made repeated efforts to headhunt him. In 2011 he capitulated. A quintessential New Yorker and only child, not only was he going to miss Manhattan where his mother had lived all her life, but also Teterboro airport, mecca for recreational pilots like Seth. He would also miss sailing, horse riding and stuff that you can’t imagine actually goes on in New York! The hardest part, however, was having his wife, a physician with a flourishing practice, put her career on hold to move to Geneva. But Gavi’s mission to change the lives of so many children was so enormous and compelling, that it needed to be done.
Close to 500 million vaccinations and counting
Gavi funds immunisation programmes in developing countries where the vast majority of unvaccinated children live. According to Gavi data, close to 500 million children have been immunised to date through Gavi support, saving 7 million lives. An additional 300 million people have been immunised through vaccine campaigns. Many of the eleven life saving vaccines recommended by WHO have been introduced in the 73 poorest countries thanks to Gavi. Vaccines providing protection against the leading causes of diarrhea and pneumonia, two of the biggest causes of child mortality among them. In addition, price negotiations have made vaccines available in developing countries at a fraction of the cost in rich countries. Even newly developed vaccines now reach poor countries much faster than before. Gavi now provides vaccines for 60% of the world’s children. It is no surprise then, that donor governments, foundations and other partners pledged $7.5 billion to Gavi in January 2015. This funding will enable the organisation to help immunize a further 300 million children, saving 5 to 6 million more lives.
Even poor countries pay
Gavi’s business model is innovative. Conceived as a public-private partnership, it combines the technical expertise of the UN family and other development partners, together with the business acumen of the private sector. Developing countries’ governments identify their immunisation needs and commit to implementing vaccine programmes. Civil society helps ensure that vaccines reach every child while manufacturers guarantee quality and affordability. While donor governments make long-term financial commitments all Gavi-supported countries co-finance a share of their vaccine costs. As their economies grow, and they enter the category of “transitioning” countries, they are able to increase domestic investment and eventually fund their own programmes. The resulting predictability that this long-term funding brings, allows the industry to supply vaccines at an affordable cost.
Seth explains that “the organisation has extremely low overheads because we work on the ground through partners, with no need to create additional infrastructure and no duplication of activities”. Adding that “there’s no free lunch either since all countries pay, even the poorest. It’s about creating access and equity”.
Nevertheless, the picture is not always rosy. Fragile states, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have serious logistics issues. Others may not have the resources, capabilities or health infrastructure to serve the poorer or less privileged populations. Some governments may not have the political will. While vaccine prices have been driven down, “working with countries to increase their coverage and equity, modernizing systems using innovation and taking these to scale are the biggest challenges,” according to Seth. Nevertheless, some governments have proven their mettle when they put their all behind it, as India did in the campaign that eliminated polio.
Reaching the unreached
Seth’s mantra is to reach the unreached and for Gavi to stay focused on this. Seth wants to “see a world where we can eliminate preventable child deaths”. With commitment and conviction he believes it can be done.
While Seth’s leadership has brought significant progress he is quick to acknowledge the contribution of his colleagues. For example, if he had his way, he would never leave home, or rather the office, without his trump card: Hind Khatib-Othman, Gavi’s Managing Director. Seth credits Hind with rapidly strengthening country programmes, the most demanding area of Gavi’s work.
How does Geneva life compare to NYC?
Five years down the road his family has also discovered that Geneva has as many options as NYC, possibly more. Bicycling to work, being a hop, skip and a jump from the airport, bilingual children, being in the centre of Europe, and horse riding! But Geneva-ites already knew this…
Back to walking
The conversation then moves back to walking. Seth copes with his hectic travel schedule and fights jet lag by exercising as soon as he reaches his destination, including when he returns home. It helps that his office is a stone’s throw from Geneva’s Botanical Gardens. Lucky him!
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a Geneva-based writer and former international United Nations civil servant.