The US professor who helped to halt the global spread of Sars

David Heymann outside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

On weekday mornings, David Heymann heads deep into Bloomsbury, west London, to an art deco building decorated with giant gilded fleas and mosquitoes. This is the site of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he works as professor of infectious disease epidemiology.

Heymann is also chairman of Public Health England, a role he took after leaving his post as assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organisation in 2009.

Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, US, the move to London has been a homecoming of sorts.

“I studied here in 1974. I launched my life in public health from this building,” says Heymann, 67.

Has the city changed much since Heymann first lived in London? “The city was in the grips of the oil crisis,” he says. “It was poorly lit at night and the air was quite polluted. The changes have been quite dramatic. It’s now a modern 21st-century city with clean air.”

In his role for Public Health England, Heymann oversees the board of the UK’s leading public health and research programme. But he has another claim to fame: in 2003, while at WHO, he played a key role in halting the spread of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

Sufferers of November sniffles take comfort: it could be worse. A decade ago Sars, a lethal cousin of the common cold and coronavirus that was first detected in the Chinese Guangdong province, cropped up in “in multiple outbreaks,” leading to an unprecedented WHO global alert.

“Early on March 15 [2003], the Singapore government called WHO to ask for medical help for one of their doctors who’d gotten sick on a plane from the US,” says Heymann. The doctor had been treating Sars patients in Singapore and had then travelled to the US to attend a conference. On his way back, he came down with acute symptoms. The news was chilling. “It was causing pulmonary failure,” says Heymann. “A disease is considered serious when it affects health workers. It was being transmitted on airplanes.”

“We gave the disease a name and described symptoms. By noon an alert went out,” says Heymann, who helped co-ordinate the quick response. He later urged the then-WHO director-general, Gro Brundtland, to put out an advisory for travellers. “She was the perfect WHO leader. She had courage,” he says.

WHO also set up a virtual network of experts, labs and on-site doctors to investigate the disease’s origins. “Where had it come from? Bats? Birds? How had it first been transmitted to humans? And between them?” recalls Heymann, who happens to have a hacking cough himself. “Don’t worry,” he says. “This is a cold. You’re most contagious before symptoms [start to appear]. With Sars, the height of infectivity was several days after the onset of symptoms.”

Heymann, who also runs the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House in London, spends his free time soaking up the city’s culture with his wife, Anne. “We were just at a concert at Wigmore Hall,” he says Heymann. “We’re making the most of London . . . When I was a student, I didn’t have time to fully benefit from London’s culture. Now we take advantage of musical events and the theatre.”

The couple live in a rented flat nearby. “We don’t plan to buy,” he says, “we still have our belongings in Geneva [where WHO has its headquarters].” Heymann, a father of three, says he likes exploring Bloomsbury, the area of London that Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes once called home. “I also like looking for historical plaques of people involved in medical and scientific discoveries,” he says.

Does he miss living in the US? “I grew up in a town of 1,600 people in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania,” he says. “My brother and I tapped maple trees to make maple syrup, fished in the local rivers – a perfect life in many ways – but except for a year in Atlanta, I haven’t lived in the US since 1974.”

Heymann has spent much of his working life crossing continents to track infectious diseases. After pitching in with smallpox eradication efforts in India, he joined the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in 1993. “My first assignment was the first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Philadelphia,” he says. “Then I was to go to the first and second Ebola outbreaks, in the then-Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo].” Even Nasa contributed to that project, donating an isolation trailer to house infected members of the health team. “That’s where the astronauts were put when they came back from the moon.”

Heymann has founded a project under IANPHI (the International Association of National Public Health Institutes) to mentor low-income countries in infectious disease control. “It needs to be supported. The best way for countries is to deal with diseases themselves. We connect experts with young scientists.” Halting new diseases, explains Heymann, takes detective work. “You need to sit down with people who are sick and listen to their histories.”

Bloomsbury has a medical history of its own and Heymann likes to visit nearby medical museums. “The Wellcome Trust has an incredible museum with medical curiosities.”

While London may be missing Pennsylvania’s mountains, it remains an ideal city to live in, says Heymann, and a great place to learn about global health. “Some of the most important understanding about global health came from London during the 19th and 20th centuries. London continues to be at the centre.” Amazingly, the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine even harbours living reminders of London’s connection to the science of epidemiology: its vaults house the world’s oldest experimental colony of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Sars, says Heymann, was stopped by a mixture of high-tech communications and old-fashioned public health measures. Convincing countries to adopt extreme measures to halt disease requires great sensitivity to local culture. “It takes diplomacy. With Sars, we had to meet heads of state and explain why we should stop travel,” he says.

In the post-Sars world, even traditionally private cultures in Asia and the Middle East have a duty to report illnesses, such as has been happening with Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome), a new disease that has been attracting the attention of health experts since mid-2012.

Buying guide


● The British Museum and its treasures are located in Bloomsbury

● The area was the base of the Bloomsbury Group of writers in the first half of the 20th century

● A first-rate medical hub, including the UCL teaching hospitals and Great Ormond Street Hospital


● Heavy traffic congestion and limited parking spaces

● High property prices

What your can buy for . . .

£100,000 A one-car garage; or ten years’ use of a mosquito vault at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

£1m A small two-bedroom flat

This article has been subject to a correction

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