Alumni Profile: Richard Hatchett, MD’95, BA’89
Viruses, vaccines and VUSM influences
Richard Hatchett, MD’95, grew up along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Although he had no medical role models in his family or an understanding of what being a physician entailed, he says medicine appealed to him intuitively as a vocation that would reconcile his strong commitments to the sciences and the humanities.
“As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt (A&S’89), I majored in English, took a minor in chemistry, and had serious literary ambitions, serving as editor of the Vanderbilt Review,” he said. “My favorite novel in those years was “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and in retrospect maybe it wasn’t an accident that the main character, Tomáš, was a surgeon.”
After graduating, Hatchett attended Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He then completed a residency in internal medicine at the New York Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. What happened between residency and an eventual oncology fellowship at Duke University shaped his career and led to his current role as the chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
One fateful day
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working as an attending in the Urgent Care Center (UCC) at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and was planning to start an oncology fellowship in the summer of 2002.
“After spending all day on Sept. 11 at the UCC preparing for an anticipated crush of patients that never materialized, the following morning I responded to the city’s call for medical volunteers and ended up at Ground Zero, somehow finding myself in charge of what became the main medical triage facility providing medical support to search-and-rescue workers.
“The spirit and energy of the hundreds of volunteers who showed up was inspiring, but the city had no plans for incorporating them into the response, and we were left to address any number of issues, from credentialing to security to managing supplies and staffing arrangements, on the fly. We managed, of course, but it was far from ideal.”
Hatchett contacted people who had run various parts of what had become, in practice, a four-story field hospital to reflect on what they could do to be better prepared for the future. The idea to establish a “civilian medical reserve” gathered momentum and by the end of the year it had been picked up by the President George W. Bush administration as a new initiative.
“Early in 2002, I was asked to come to Washington to help set up the new Medical Reserve Corps program, which still exists and now counts about 190,000 registered volunteers. And, well, one thing led to another, and here we are.”
Hatchett served on the White House Homeland Security Council under President Bush and was a member of the White House National Security Staff under President Barack Obama. He is a recipient of the HHS Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service and a five-time recipient of the NIH Director’s Merit Award.
Eyeing emerging viruses
Hatchett served as acting director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), after serving for five years as BARDA’s chief medical officer and deputy director. At BARDA, Hatchett oversaw programs to develop medical countermeasures against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases and led or helped lead the development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for a number of emerging viruses, including the H3N2v and H7N9 influenza viruses, MERS, Ebola and Zika.
He said his most memorable experience was responding to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-2015.
“The outbreak there presented so many challenges on so many levels, and for a time we feared that the epidemic might spread and sweep over many more countries than it did. We innovated constantly, in the design and implementation of clinical trials for therapeutics and vaccines, in the management of patients, in the development of deployable medical facilities, in the use of predictive modeling, and in how we man- aged our public-private partnerships.
“The Ebola epidemic demonstrated that it was possible to conduct rigorous clinical trials at speed and in austere environments, even in a hot zone. It changed the game forever.”
Hatchett views work within the White House under two presidents as a great privilege.
“Until COVID-19 emerged and drew attention to it, I think President Bush’s foresight with respect to pandemic threats was greatly underappreciated. That we couldn’t do better when the pandemic he feared finally arrived is a shame and a tragedy,” he said.
“During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, we had a fair amount of access to President Obama and good access to his senior staff. President Obama had the utmost respect for government scientists and institutions like the CDC and NIH and BARDA. He was also willing to learn from history. At one point, he invited the surviving members of the team that had led the 1976 swine flu response to the White House and listened intently as they offered guidance and counsel based on their experiences and the mistakes they had made.
“President Obama had an incredible aura. He filled a room when he entered it. But he was also remarkably down to earth. When staff leave their White House service, they have an opportunity to bring their families in to meet the president in the Oval Office, and I remember President Obama kneeling down so he could talk to my 5 1/2-year-old son at eye level and giving him a fist bump. It was a sweet moment on what I’m sure must have been a very busy day for the president.”
Public sector success
As CEO of CEPI, Hatchett is most proud of being the first public sector organization worldwide to provide funds for COVID-19 vaccine development, on Jan. 23, 2020, just 12 days after the SARS-CoV-2 sequences were released.
“And we are supporting the world’s largest actively managed portfolio of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, including several that have already shown positive results, but I think we will have made our biggest contribution through our work, alongside Gavi (a vaccine alliance that has vaccinated more than 822 million children in the world’s poorest countries) and the World Health Organization in launching COVAX,” Hatchett said.
The goal of COVAX is to get vaccines developed and distributed worldwide. To date, 191 countries and economies, representing over 90% of the world’s population, have joined COVAX, making it the world’s largest multilateral undertaking since the Paris Agreement, Hatchett said.
Hatchett said his eight years at Vanderbilt impacted his future career in numerous ways.
“I had some wonderful friends, across several classes, and I think we have variously inspired each other across the course of life’s journey. Having people you’ve shared formative experiences with who travel along with you through life is so important,” he said.
Hatchett also recalls the physicians, teachers and mentors who inspired him in various ways.
“Some, like Bob Collins, Jack Davies, and Corey Slovis, were just fabulous pedagogues; others, like Kathy Edwards and Bill Schaffner, were role models as clinician-scientists; and still others, like Jackie Corbin and Jacek Hawiger, generously supported my research and took a personal interest in my development, giving me opportunities that opened doors, which led to other doors, along a path that leads ultimately to the present.”
Corbin, PhD, and Sharron Francis, PhD, were Hatchett’s scientific mentors and welcomed him into their labs for several years. “Jackie also helped me land a position as a research associate with a former post-doc at the National Heart & Lung Institute in London, which was a great experience in its own right.” As a medical student Hatchett received a Justin Potter Scholarship, which covered most of his medical school expenses. He said he will forever be grateful for the financial support it provided.
“Graduating from medical school without crushing debt provided me a truly precious gift: the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”
And finally, his reading “The Hot Zone” on one of his fourth-year clinical rotations paid off three years later when he spent three months in northeast Gabon working on an Ebola project investigating three closely related outbreaks and thinking about the enviroclimatic factors that might have triggered the virus to reemerge so abruptly.
“Who could have guessed that worrying about such rare events would turn into a career?”