During his first year as a junior officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Daniel Jernigan was called to investigate an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease on a cruise ship in New York Harbor. He spent days on the ship as it headed to Bermuda until he found the source of Legionella in the ship’s water system, which sickened 52 passengers and led to one death.
That was the start of a 25-year career at the CDC where Jernigan has gone on to lead the agency’s responses to dozens of contagious disease outbreaks and flu pandemics in the U.S. and around the world and has become the nation’s leader in identifying and responding to influenza threats.
“Daniel Jernigan’s leadership in the global public health battle against contagious diseases has protected the health of hundreds of millions of Americans,” said Dr. Emily Eisenberg Lobelo, associate policy director at CDC’s Influenza Division.
“While he has played a critical role in more than 50 national and global contagious disease outbreak responses, most notable are his accomplishments in the prevention and control of influenza, reducing the numbers of people who are sick, hospitalized or who die from seasonal flu every year,” Lobelo said.
As a leader for the Influenza Division for the past 13 years, Jernigan oversees nearly 300 scientists and public health experts. During the 2017-18 flu season, Jernigan’s team, working with public health and clinical partners, estimates that the vaccinations they recommended prevented about 7 million influenza illnesses, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths nationwide.
Jernigan has taken numerous innovative steps to improve surveillance, prevention and control of influenza, including the use of genetic sequencing to characterize more than 6,000 influenza viruses that has resulted in better and faster ways to understand the disease.
“The influenza virus has been evolving and we were not able to characterize more and more viral strains by the traditional method,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director. “Dan flipped the process and was able to speed up information about the viruses circulating and get information on every single strain.”
Recently, Jernigan took the technology one step further by directing his team to develop a portable sequencing toolkit—known as “Sequencing in a Backpack”—that enables the CDC to
send personnel to other countries to evaluate viruses rather than have researchers in the country send samples to CDC. The backpack includes a handheld sequencer that can work off a laptop and fits in an overhead compartment of an airplane.
“It is ready to go anywhere in the world to do rapid determination of the gene sequence of a flu virus, so we can get as much information as quickly as possible,” Jernigan said.
The genetic information is then fed into the Influenza Risk Assessment Tool, which uses laboratory and epidemiological data generated by Jernigan’s division. It rates emerging flu viruses based on the likelihood they would become pandemics or cause severe illness if they spread widely.
“Dan is really good about keeping his eye on what’s going to come next technologically and be first out of the gate in terms of how to use it to improve influenza control,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
While influenza has been Jernigan’s focus throughout his career, it is only one part of his expertise.
“Dan has been the go-to person for every major disease crisis in the world— West Nile virus, SARS,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “He’s so calm and knowledgeable.”
In 2015, he led CDC’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa for five months. While many people worked on the effort and made incredible contributions, “Dan was the steady hand on the helm during a really difficult time,” Messonnier said.
Jernigan’s approach to difficult public health challenges was honed by the 2003 outbreak of viral respiratory illness SARS in Taiwan. He said this taught him “how one responds to a significant problem by breaking down the problem into bits that you can accomplish and seeing that through.”
Also influential was an assignment early in his career to work with companies developing standards for electronic health records. He figured out how to incorporate public health into those standards and enable electronic systems at a laboratory in one state to communicate seamlessly with a public health entity in another state and with the CDC.
“Those are longer range, tedious things that have a big impact,” Jernigan said. “If you want to do public health, you have to do things that are crisis driven and things that aren’t, so that when you have a crisis it’s not a problem.”
Schuchat said that is one of Jernigan’s great strengths.
“He is able to see very far ahead and where we need to go and find innovative ways to get there, whether it’s reinventing how we characterize flu viruses or making laboratories more efficient and ready to surge when there’s a pandemic or bad flu season,” Schuchat said.