Press Releases from the U.S. Department of State
September 16, 2022
The Virchow Prize for Global Health recognizes and celebrates lifetime achievements of those who dedicate their lives to improving the health and wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable people. This year, Ambassador Dr. John Nkengasong, the Department of State’s U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Health Diplomacy, was selected unanimously by the Virchow Prize Committee; which based their decision on the exceptionally impressive and outstanding role he has demonstrated since his earliest beginnings in scientific research. That was underscored by his establishment of crucial global health institutions and education, including training of new generations of global health scientists, activists, and diplomats, which contribute to raised awareness on the essential need for international cooperation in health.
Nkengasong has a three-decade-long career of trailblazing contributions to global health. He spent most of his career pioneering innovations to eliminate global health inequities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; pioneer in building the first state-of-the-art HIV laboratory in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; inaugural chief of the Division of Global HIV and Tuberculosis’ Laboratory Branch. In addition, he served as the acting deputy principal director of the CDC’s Center for Global Health. His inspired leadership drove him to establish the African Society for Laboratory Medicine, the first organization of its kind to build a network of laboratory science professionals who are now connected and coordinating across the continent of Africa and beyond. He also established the African Journal of Laboratory Medicine – a respected and open access journal where laboratory-focused research is double blind peer-reviewed and published, advancing the field and contributing to a body of research about clinical and public health with practical applications for laboratory medicine practices in Africa.
Following a heralded career of leadership at U.S. CDC, Nkengasong became the pioneer director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. As the first to serve as the newly established organization’s director, Nkengasong worked with a small team to transform this specialized technical institution of the African Union into a fully autonomous and respected health agency. During his tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a considerable threat to the continent. Nkengasong, in accordance with Africa CDC’s charge to detect, prevent, control and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats, became a World Health Organization director general’s special envoy on COVID-19. In that capacity, he led the COVID-19 response in Africa in close coordination with heads of state and governments across the continent to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. His efforts, closely coordinated with Strive Masiyiwa, founder and executive chairman of Econet Group and Cassava Technologies; Dr. Vera Songwe of UNECA; and Professor Benedict Oramah of the Africa Export-Import Bank, helped secure 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines at the height of vaccine scarcity. Nkengasong has been knighted by Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal in recognition of his numerous contributions in global health and has authored over 250 scientific-peer reviewed publications. He was recognized as a Time Magazine 100 most influential people in the world in 2021 and ranked fourth by Fortune magazine as one of the 25 world’s great leaders in 2021.
In early 2022, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. selected Nkengasong to head the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which is the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history, prevent millions of HIV infections, save lives, and make progress toward ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Within days of assuming the role, he began holding listening sessions with internal and external global stakeholders to inform decisions about reimagining PEPFAR for the future, as he now leads the nearly 20-year effort to end HIV/AIDS as a public health threat.
The Virchow Prize for Global Health is awarded by the Virchow Foundation for Global Health, an independent non-profit foundation that strives to raise awareness about global health issues in a holistic approach, addressing all sectors of society, with the aim of improving health and well-being. Winners of this prestigious award receive a monetary prize of €500,000, which Nkengasong asked the foundation to donate to organizations in sub-Saharan Africa that address inequities among vulnerable populations.
To be honored with the Virchow Prize for Global Health affirms Nkengasong’s successful global health pioneering and lifelong leadership and dedication to achieving health for all.
I am humbled and honored to receive the Virchow Prize for Global Health. What drives me today and has driven me throughout my career in public health over the past 30 years is a need to serve the underprivileged and vulnerable populations by eliminating inequities in global health. Growing up in my country of birth, Cameroon, I experienced firsthand and very personally what it means to be vulnerable to disease threats. I frequently suffered from malaria episodes, any one of which could have taken my life because access to basic medicine was limited. I am fortunate, I survived, but millions have not.
My experience in Cameroon was the catalyst for my commitment to bridging inequities in global health. Early in my global health journey, it became clear to me that the lack of strong public health institutions and systems are a serious impediment to health equity, so I have focused my public health work mainly in being a pioneer in building and strengthening sustainable public health institutions and systems, including the first U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s state of the art HIV laboratory in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and the agency’s first International Laboratory Branch with the first-ever internationally accredited HIV laboratories to serve U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) goals; establishing the African Society for Laboratory Medicine; the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; and building on the achievements of the Ambassadors who came before me, we are on the cusp of monumental progress in the HIV/AIDS response through PEPFAR.
It is with deep gratitude that I accept this award, which is named after the great scientist Rudolf Virchow. His work advanced global health during his time through today. I share his commitment to improving the lives and wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable and I will continue to dedicate my time and energy to that effort.
I have asked the Virchow Foundation to donate the generous prize’s monetary award to organizations on the continent of sub-Saharan Africa to help address health inequities among vulnerable populations.
Ambassador Dr. John N. Nkengasong serves as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State.