University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health

Chapel Hill, NC

Dean Emerita Barbara Rimer at University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health recalls, “In January 2020, I received an email from Gillings virologist Dr. Ralph Baric, alerting me to a new strain of SARS virus, subsequently named SARS-CoV-2, that was found in Wuhan, China. He said he thought it could be the big one, a concern also voiced by Dr. David Weber, a Gillings epidemiologist. I was immediately on high attention. Just 18 months before, in April 2018, we had held a symposium entitled “Going Viral” to commemorate and learn from the 1918 influenza epidemic that had killed about 50 million people around the world. Because of preparation for that event, many of us had immersed ourselves in that outbreak, what had been learned from it and what could happen if another such tragedy occurred. At that symposium’s closing session, Dr. Baric predicted that another pandemic was likely to occur, that it was likely to come from a coronavirus, and that, because of environmental and other reasons, it could start in China.” 

Dean Rimer continues, “From the beginning, we were aligned closely with others in the university, including our infectious disease colleagues in the School of Medicine, those in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy and the provost, who was former dean of UNC’s School of Pharmacy. We began discussing the potential for a global pandemic and assessing what we might need to do if we had to close the university to students and staff and how we could continue to keep essential research laboratories functioning on campus. On January 31st, I heard from the Baric Lab that their work on remdesivir looked very promising. People were paying attention. On February 1, 2020, we sent the following to university officials regarding the work of the Baric Lab: ‘We have the opportunity to contribute to eliminating a global threat — good for the world, Ralph and his team, the Gillings School and the department of epidemiology. I hope we can work together to be sure he and his lab can do the work.’”   

On the morning of February 25, 2020, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, spoke frankly at a press briefing, warning reporters of a new respiratory virus originating in China and threatening an inevitable spread to the US. 

“It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Messonnier, then director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now.” 

Messonnier is now the dean of the Gillings School, as of September 1, 2022, replacing Barbara Rimer who stepped down as dean after 17 years in the position. 

By March 9, it was looking increasingly likely that the country would shut down, and that would include the university. Rimer added, “We stepped up conversations in the school and university about what could be done and what our role should be in addressing the pandemic. We operated on many fronts. Our epidemiology faculty members became partners with the NC Department of Health and Human Services, tracking the virus in North Carolina and projecting hospitalizations. We provided advice to university officials about how to proceed, and we worked with our faculty over spring break in March 2020 to prepare to transition to teaching fully online. There were weekly calls with university leaders to discuss and reach conclusions about appropriate actions, including tracking campus cases. We organized and delivered regular online COVID conversations (monthly at the height of the pandemic), a highly interactive Zoom forum in which Gillings COVID experts met with the Gillings and university communities, explained what was happening and helped us all collectively take necessary actions. We read papers and followed CDC advice. We made some missteps too. I wish I’d encouraged masking earlier but followed CDC guidance on the issue. CDC experts themselves were hampered by a White House that resisted acknowledging the full force of the epidemic. Ralph Baric and I participated as part of a National Academy of Medicine committee that mounted a series of webinars on the pandemic. Gillings leadership also offered a series of webinars — “Emergency Preparedness, Ethics and Equity” — to elevate visibility and action on the systems of racism and COVID. We met with state legislators from both parties who provided support to investigators at UNC, including our school, to address questions urgent for North Carolina.”  

There were lessons learned, she says. “As in other threats, communication was critical. We did a good job of reaching out to our various constituencies, but we could have been even more aggressive about it.” 

Ralph Baric said, “The rapid response in terms of therapeutic antibodies, vaccines and drugs against COVID-19 is sort of an unparalleled scientific achievement in biology and microbiology and medicine. That entire infrastructure of collaboration and interaction at the public-private interface paid off. It paid off for the American people. Having said that, we can do better. We learned that we need to reinvest in public health. We need to speak with a single voice in a pandemic. And we need to figure out how to deal with misinformation on social media which we have not been able to deal with effectively.”

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