2009 Science, Technology and Environment

Robin Robinson

Led the development of the first avian influenza H5N1 vaccine—cited as the #3 medical breakthrough of 2007 by TIME magazine.

When news of the recent swine flu outbreak hit, a lot of people raised questions about our government’s preparedness to deal with such a threat and whether or not the presidential transition, which has created several vacancies in key leadership posts, left the American people particularly vulnerable.

The reality is that our government is in a much better position to deal with this type of risk than it was a few short years ago, and one big reason is the Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority (BARDA). The man who runs and practically singlehandedly built this office is Dr. Robin Robinson.

“Our way of thinking and doing business has completely changed. In the past, government and industry were timid. After Katrina, we saw what can happen if you don’t prepare properly for a disaster. We now leave no stone unturned. That approach permeates every aspect of our work, from the stockpiling of vaccines to the R&D,” said Dr. Robinson.

Tucked away within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), BARDA provides an integrated, systematic approach to the development and purchase of the necessary vaccines, drugs, therapies and diagnostic tools for public health medical emergencies.

Barely five years old, BARDA has already made significant achievements under Dr. Robinson’s leadership. In particular, this unit led the development of a vaccine for the strain of bird flu that has killed more than 200 people since 2003. TIME magazine recognized this discovery as the third most significant medical breakthrough of 2007. Dr. Robinson’s team also established a pandemic influenza vaccine stockpile for at least 20 million people two years ahead of schedule, and it has plans to expand this stockpile to include 150 million doses.

Looking forward, the establishment of this office now means our government can hit the ground running when it comes to developing treatments for outbreaks like the swine flu.

Congress created this new office as part of the Pandemic Flu and All Hazards Preparedness Act of 2004. Dr. Robinson was recruited from private industry to help start the office.

“I was asked to head the pandemic influenza work after I had already worked to develop a number of vaccines in the private sector. I felt that I could make more of a difference in the public sector with the resources provided,” said Dr. Robinson.

“When he started, he was an army of one,” said Dr. Noreen Hynes of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, who was Dr. Robinson’s supervisor at HHS from April 2005 to December 2006. “All of the initial accomplishments were just Robin: sending out the request for proposals, setting up the review panels, putting out the requests for information.”

Congress would eventually appropriate billions to support Dr. Robinson’s work on the avian flu vaccine. He quickly used these new resources to build out his internal team. He also succeeded in convincing private research firms to join in this effort.

Dr. Gerald Parker, a deputy assistant secretary at HHS who recommended Dr. Robinson for his current job, cites a variety of factors for Dr. Robinson’s success. “Obstacles always present themselves, especially in the medical vaccine and all hazards medicine industry. Dr. Robinson displays agility and flexibility to listen to other views and incorporates them into a path forward,” said Parker. “His commitment to the team effort is also critical to the success they have achieved.”

Nobody sings Robin Robinson’s praises more loudly than his current supervisor, William Vanderwagen, who is the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS. “Robin Robinson sacrificed personal gain in the pharmaceutical industry to pursue public service. His dedication to the public health medical emergency preparedness mission has inspired both older and younger colleagues from industry, academia and government to join him at BARDA.”

With Robin Robinson on the job and others following his lead, the American public can feel better knowing that our government is more prepared than ever to deal with public health emergencies.