In the 2011 thriller movie “Contagion,” a young disease detective played by Kate Winslet tries to convince skeptical government officials about the dangers of a deadly new virus that could be much more contagious than influenza or polio.
Winslet’s character was modeled after Dr. Anne Schuchat, now the principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who in late 2019 and in 2020 faced a similar real-life situation trying to alert political leaders and the public about the potential threat of an “unknown pneumonia” in Wuhan, China.
Schuchat is one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts. “She’s our Anthony Fauci,” said Sherri Berger, the CDC’s chief operating officer, referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been a leading voice on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The actual Anthony Fauci said, “Anne has been through multiple outbreaks where she’s played a major role: H1N1, West Nile, Ebola, Zika and now COVID-19.”
“She has shown great consistency, a high level of competence and integrity, and has been an anchor at the CDC,” said Fauci, a 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals award recipient. “She is very experienced, very measured…and universally respected, not only in the United States but throughout the entire global health community.”
During her 33-year career at the CDC, Schuchat rose from investigating disease outbreaks to becoming the top career official at the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta, serving twice as acting director.
Schuchat’s wide-ranging experience, including her work with the World Health Organization and with the fledgling Beijing CDC in 2003 to investigate the SARS epidemic, helped inform and guide her as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
In late December 2019, Schuchat was one of the first people in the U.S. to spot warning signs of the emerging COVID-19 outbreak in China. Although the news was increasingly alarming, she and the agency had trouble delivering that message to other government officials and the public.
As the months progressed, Schuchat and her colleagues were caught in the middle between the science and public health policy on one hand, and election-year politics on the other. The CDC was in many respects sidelined and its staff increasingly alarmed as the deadly virus spread throughout the country.
At the behest of the new CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, Schuchat conducted a thorough review and update of the agency’s COVID-19 documents to ensure that all of the agency’s pandemic guidance is science-based.
She noted that her work continues to focus on “COVID, COVID, COVID” as well as “earning back public trust by providing effective and practical information.” This included urging a close review of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in April after a small number of U.S. cases involved a rare and severe type of blood clot.
Earlier in her career, Schuchat discovered the source of a listeria outbreak among newborns in Costa Rica and helped prove that the bacteria causing the sometimes fatal disease could be transmitted through processed meat and other food. She also studied prevention of Group B strep, an infection that can be fatal to infants.
Both efforts led to changes in national policy that have saved lives, Berger said. The Department of Agriculture tightened restrictions on listeria in ready-to-eat meat despite strong industry opposition, and a national standard was developed for testing pregnant women to prevent Group B strep from being transmitted to their babies.
Schuchat also has played key roles in many CDC emergency responses, serving as the chief health officer during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic response and supporting the Washington, D.C., field team during the 2001 bioterrorist anthrax response. Globally, she worked in West Africa on meningitis, pneumonia and Ebola vaccine trials, and in South Africa on surveillance and prevention projects. She also has authored or co-authored more than 230 scientific articles, book chapters and reviews.
“Through her ingenuity, Anne has saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Dr. Richard Besser, the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former CDC acting director. “She’s one of the most creative epidemiologists I’ve ever met.”
Schuchat is also known for mentoring younger scientists. “She guides emerging leaders because she not only cares about the people, but about the future of this agency and public health,” Berger said.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoo, Schuchat’s special assistant, said her boss has “a collaborative style, calm demeanor and optimism” that make her an effective leader. She said Schuchat is willing to tackle many tough problems, including issues of diversity and inclusion within the agency.
“She comes at it with humility and empathy and the willingness to listen to the idea of others and find ways to give everyone a voice and chart path forward,” said Hoo.
During the darkest days of the pandemic, colleagues said Schuchat took great pains to encourage and support the CDC staff. The new challenge, Schuchat said, is to reclaim the agency’s reputation as the world’s premier disease fighter and to go to work every day to solve problems.
“My role now is to be a steward for the agency by encouraging the next generation and by ensuring that we follow the highest quality standards to fulfill our pledge to the American people,” Schuchat said.