Media Relations Associate
Good evening and thank you very much, Ted, Ethel, and Kerry, for your kind introduction and warm and gracious remarks. I am profoundly humbled to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award that has honored so many remarkable individuals before me as well as those with me today. Above all, however, this award holds special meaning because it venerates the human rights and social justice legacy championed by Robert F. Kennedy.
I came of age in the 1960s. At the time, I was living in New York City, pursuing my medical training at Cornell University Medical Center and its affiliated hospital. Like many in my generation, I was inspired by the dynamic trio of Kennedy brothers in government service during that decade—John as President, Robert as Attorney General, and then Senator from New York State, and Ted as Senator from Massachusetts—and their pursuit of a more just and egalitarian society. Then, so quickly in succession, the world suffered the incomprehensible loss of two of them. During that intense decade, which raised our nation’s hopes high and subsequently suffused us in grief, the Kennedys’ commitment to public service, at such enormous personal cost, was never far from my mind. After finishing my medical residency, I joined the National Institutes of Health. It was about 15 years later, through my role as NIAID director, that I had the good fortune to begin forging a delightfully warm and productive friendship with Ted during his distinguished Senate career. In the 1980s, he became one of the earliest champions of our creating a new NIAID research program focused on the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the ensuing decades until his passing, he proved to be a steadfast supporter of NIH, including the unpredictable need for our Institute to rapidly respond to emerging infectious disease threats as they occurred, such as HIV/AIDS but also the anthrax attacks and SARS and others.
Today, we are contending with the gravest threat to public health in more than a century, the unprecedented global pandemic of COVID-19. The trajectory of the U.S. pandemic currently remains perilous with staggering numbers of accumulating cases and hospitalizations and an American tragedy in the lives lost. Yet not far off is a clear indication of hope. Candidate COVID-19 vaccines developed at NIH and elsewhere have been shown to be safe and remarkably efficacious and we hope to begin deploying them very soon. Undoubtedly, the development of these vaccines is a triumph of science; however, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Science began as one of the noblest expressions of man’s reason. It will continue to serve humanity so long as it never forgets that human beings remain the heart of its purpose.” His words remind us that it is not enough for science to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and to achieve triumphant discoveries, such strivings must be imbued with a deeper, human purpose. As applied to COVID-19, scientists must ensure that all people who need these life-saving vaccines receive them. Moreover, COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic social and health inequities that put racial and ethnic minorities at increased risk for both severe COVID-19 disease and death. It would not be easy to make right the many social determinants that increase one person’s risk of disease or decrease another’s ability to access health care. Yet, in the years ahead, addressing these larger problems must become our priority.
And so thank you again for bestowing on me the RFK Ripple of Hope Award. To the best of my ability going forward, I always will strive to honor the legacy which it represents.