Lesbian Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo tapped to head NIAID

  • by Liz Highleyman, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
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Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo has been named to head the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Photo: UAB/Lexi Coon
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo has been named to head the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Photo: UAB/Lexi Coon

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, a world-acclaimed expert on HIV and sexually transmitted infections, has been chosen to head the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, replacing Dr. Anthony Fauci. A lesbian, Marrazzo will be the first LGBTQ person to hold such a high-level health position.

"Dr. Marrazzo's expertise in STIs provides exactly the lens we need to ensure there is support for a strong STI research agenda that prioritizes the development of new vaccines, antibiotics, and diagnostic tools the nation needs," David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, said in a statement.

Dr. Lawrence Tabak, acting director of the National Institutes of Health, announced the appointment on August 2.

"Dr. Marrazzo brings a wealth of leadership experience from leading international clinical trials and translational research, managing a complex organizational budget that includes research funding and mentoring trainees in all stages of professional development," Tabak said.

Among the largest of the 27 NIH institutes, NIAID advances the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of infectious, immunological and allergic diseases, and spearheads the nation's response to infectious disease outbreaks, including HIV and COVID-19. Though previously well-known in the HIV and STI fields, Marrazzo gained greater public recognition as a media expert during the pandemic.

Marrazzo, currently director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the Bay Area Reporter that she couldn't comment on her goals as NIAID director until she officially assumes the position in the fall. She did say that she has a partner who is also an infectious disease physician.

A long history of HIV and STI research

Marrazzo has a long history of research in the areas of HIV, STIs and women's and LGBTQ sexual health. She has studied infections of the female reproductive tract, antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, STIs among people living with HIV, and PrEP and other biomedical HIV prevention technologies — including a major study of PrEP for cisgender women. She co-founded the Lesbian/Bisexual Women's Health Study at the University of Washington in Seattle, advocating for STI awareness and cervical cancer screening for this population.

Marrazzo, who grew up near Scranton, Pennsylvania, earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Harvard University, a medical degree from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Washington. She is a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Physicians. In 2022, she received the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association's Distinguished Career Award, the organization's highest honor.

"IDSA and its members have experienced firsthand Dr. Marrazzo's effective, engaging, and visionary leadership through her many years of service on the board of directors," IDSA president Dr. Carlos del Rio stated. "We look forward to working with her in her capacity as NIAID director to strengthen the pipeline of [infectious disease] researchers and physician-scientists and advance groundbreaking science that will improve outbreak and pandemic preparedness, combat antimicrobial resistance and end HIV as an epidemic."

Del Rio also noted that having held positions on the West Coast and in the South, Marrazzo has a broader view of the country than leaders who have spent most of their careers in the Northeast or Washington, D.C.

Marrazzo will oversee NIAID's $6.3 billion budget, which funds research at universities and research organizations across the country and at 21 laboratories, including the NIH Vaccine Research Center, a news release stated.

Fauci, who led NIAID for nearly four decades since the early years of the HIV epidemic, retired at the end of last year. Since then, Dr. Hugh Auchincloss Jr. has served as acting director.

President Joe Biden has named Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, now director of the National Cancer Institute, to take over from Tabak as head of NIH, succeeding Dr. Francis Collins, who stepped down in December 2021. But Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is holding up her appointment until Biden agrees to a plan to lower drug prices. Marrazzo's position does not require Senate confirmation.

As medical research and public health have become more polarized in the wake of COVID, Marrazzo will need to navigate political divisions and is expected to face scrutiny from Congress and an increasingly skeptical public. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), for example, has called for NIAID to be broken up into smaller institutes.

"I believe she will be up to it as long as she stays anchored in science and evidence, and in keeping an open mind," Fauci told the Washington Post.

The national PrEP4All organization expects that Marrazzo will prioritize disadvantaged and disproportionately affected populations.

"At a time when infectious disease threats are on the rise globally and preventive and sexual health has come under attack for women and LGBTQ communities around the world, Dr. Marrazzo's demonstrated commitment to addressing HIV and STIs in marginalized populations will be of enormous value in ensuring that the research needs of vulnerable communities are met," the advocacy group said in a statement.

"As public health advocates, PrEP4All looks forward to working with Dr. Marrazzo on the continued fight against HIV, along with new challenges like long COVID," said board member Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist and friend of Fauci's who served on the NIAID director search committee. Alluding to recent lawsuits challenging drug company patents on HIV medications developed with public funding, he added, "We also need a fresh look at how NIAID promotes access to its own discoveries, fully leveraging the American taxpayers' intellectual property."

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