Pandemic Fighter’s Priorities
Researcher Helps Lead Nation’s Vaccine Trials—With Hopes of Resuming Terps Tailgating Soon
One of the nation’s leading scientists in the desperate campaign to develop coronavirus vaccines—and in the Hollywood-esque triumph of succeeding within a year—grew up just across the street from the University of Maryland. Underlying all that work is her hope of returning to campus.
“I’m fighting the pandemic partly so I can get back to my Terps season tickets,” said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil ’83, lamenting a men’s basketball season played in a mostly empty Xfinity Center.
The director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), Neuzil pivoted at the pandemic’s outset in early 2020 to take on COVID-19, and has been inside a whirlwind ever since.
She’s one of two researchers leading the COVID-19 Prevention Trials Network for the National Institutes of Health, responsible for design and oversight of clinical trials of the vaccines now available stateside as well as those in the pipeline. Along the way, she’s had a role in UMSOM studies validating the use of the antiviral drug remdesivir for some critically ill patients, and helping debunk former President Donald Trump’s obsession, hydrochloroquine, as a COVID cure-all.
Neuzil’s friends and tight-knit family have watched her often round-the-clock effort without surprise; they say it’s in keeping with her seemingly boundless energy and drive.
“A typical thing for Kathy would be that she’s working on vaccines in Vietnam for a week, gets off the plane after flying around the world and is calling from the Uber asking, ‘How do I get to the kids’ games?’” said her sister, Sue O’Connell ’76.
Neuzil’s priorities beyond medicine and public health were formed as a child, when the family lived on the flanks of the UMD Golf Course. Her father was a Terrapin Club member and infused the household with Maryland sports fervor, and even took a preteen Kathleen to the ACC tournament.
But then, over a tragic two years, Neuzil’s father died of cancer when she was 12, followed by her mother’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage when she was 14. The potentially ruinous effect on her future, however, was averted when the four siblings—the oldest of whom had just reached adulthood—drew together and stayed on in their parents’ house, where they dealt with grief by carrying on almost as if their parents were still alive.
“I honestly didn’t feel that I had time to let it derail me in any way,” Neuzil said. “I had my studies. I was playing sports in high school. I was always working part-time because money was a problem.”
A combination of smarts and financial need resulted in a full scholarship at UMD, her dream school. She majored in zoology and played club softball in the days before the university had an NCAA team.
After graduating summa cum laude, she attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, followed by a residency in internal medicine at Vanderbilt University, and then a fellowship in infectious diseases and Master of Public Health degree at the same institution.
Among her major research breakthroughs was a demonstration that childhood pneumonia was often linked to influenza, a finding that surprised health authorities and led to flu vaccinations before age 1.
Her longtime research collaborator and friend, Dr. Kathryn Edwards, a professor of pediatrics and an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt, says Neuzil has rare instincts as a researcher.
“She has a gift of seeing what the real question is—a laser vision to focus on that, and not be diverted by side issues,” Edwards said.
Neuzil’s focus broadened to global vaccine issues when she moved to PATH, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded international public health nonprofit in Seattle where, as director of vaccine access and delivery, she was instrumental in rolling out a number of vaccines around the world, including those for HPV, rotovirus and Japanese encephalitis.
She returned to Maryland in 2015 as a professor of vaccinology at UMSOM. (Her husband is a vascular surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and one of their three children is now in medical school.) In addition to serving here as one of the world’s leading voices on vaccine research and policy, she’s rejoined another important group, too.
“When she came back, the family was together again,” O’Connell said.