Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, who has chaired the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for seven years, succeeds Dr. Anthony Fauci this fall as head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Marrazzo became a media fixture during the COVID pandemic, appearing frequently on local and national news outlets to explain the latest developments with the virus in a calm and authoritative voice, even as cases overwhelmed Alabama hospitals and political divisions complicated the public health response.
Before COVID-19, Marrazzo was already prominent in the field of infectious diseases, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California at San Francisco.
“Dr. Marrazzo is truly a leader in HIV prevention and STDs and HIV in women,” Gandhi said. “She led one of the major trials that helped us understand the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis in women.”
Marrazzo grew up in Pennsylvania, she insisted Reckon Interview podcast. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and studied medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
She spent two decades at the University of Washington School of Medicine as a faculty member before coming to UAB. Her work focused on women, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
She has appeared as an author on hundreds of research papers and has obtained dozens of grants, according to her profile at UAB.
Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a professor of medicine at Emory University and an expert in infectious diseases, said Marrazzo has a strong research background and will bring a unique perspective.
“She’s lived in the South, and she’s had the experience of living outside of the Northeast,” Del Rio said. “And Fauci was in New York and DC and never anywhere else. She has seen the West. She’s been to Seattle and she’s been here. So she has a better view of the greater America”
During the COVID pandemic, Marrazzo came out in support of emergency public health measures that closed businesses and mandated mask-wearing. She served on Governor Kay Ivey’s COVID Task Force. As the pandemic progressed, she said she believed young children could attend schools with strict safety measures in place.
“Then there’s a way to get young kids back to school, make sure they’re not infected, make sure their families aren’t infected, which is another question that’s relevant to raise and make sure, that the teachers and staff are not infected?” Marrazzo told Reckon Radio. “And if that’s the case, can you create a relatively COVID-free environment for them to go back to school? Because you’re balancing the ongoing psychological and developmental damage of keeping kids out of school for an extended period of time.”
Alabama leaders passed mask mandates in 2020 that expired in 2021. Most public schools opened for in-person instruction in 2020.
Dr. Karen Landers, chief medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said the agency worked closely with Marrazzo and benefited from her expertise and generosity. She said Marrazzo has an incredible understanding of the science and literature of infectious diseases.
“She’s a phenomenal selection,” Landers said. “I couldn’t think of anyone better, but I’m very sad to lose her from the state of Alabama and also from UAB.”
Polarization during the pandemic damaged confidence in public health, Gandhi said. Marrazzo will face challenges in trying to repair it, she said.
“She will have to navigate and help with transparency and with honesty about what we know and what we don’t know,” Gandhi said. “She will have to navigate a public way to get the nation back on track around infectious disease.”
That’s not the only hurdle Marrazzo faces as she joins NIAID. A program enacted under President George W. Bush to fight HIV/AIDS in other countries has recently come under scrutiny from conservative lawmakers. Some Republican congressmen have threatened to withhold funding for the president’s emergency AIDS relief plan because of concerns that money could flow to organizations that provide abortions, according to Politico.
The pandemic also disrupted domestic efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and coincided with an increase in sexually transmitted infections. Antimicrobial resistance, which makes drugs less effective at fighting bacterial infections, is also on the rise, Gandhi said.
Gandhi said Marrazzo has been an effective leader throughout his career.
“Her leadership style has really brought the division together at UAB, and I have every confidence that she can do this as head of NIAID,” she said.