Harvard Chan student and alum help develop global vaccine access strategy

Elvis Garcia, DrPH ’19, and Sana Mostaghim, DrPH ’18 talking over their laptops
Elvis Garcia, DrPH ’19, and Sana Mostaghim, DrPH ’18

December 17, 2018—A DrPH student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a recent graduate of the program are helping pharmaceutical company Takeda develop strategies for bringing vaccines for infectious diseases like dengue, polio, and Zika to the countries that need them most.

Sana Mostaghim, DrPH ’18, joined Takeda last year for his DELTA Project—the culminating work experience for the DrPH degree at Harvard Chan School—and was then hired full-time as an associate director. Elvis Garcia, DrPH ’19, is currently doing his DELTA Project at the company.

Real-world experience

On DELTA Projects, students engage in a work experience of at least eight months, usually with a host organization. The aim is for students to not only have an opportunity to conduct their thesis research and build their skills, but to make a substantive contribution to public health.

Rajeev Venkayya, president of the Global Vaccine Business Unit at Takeda, helped recruit Mostaghim and Garcia, both of whom were able to find roles at the company that were good fits for their skills and interests.

Public health students have been a good fit for Takeda, too, said Gary Dubin, senior vice president and head of the company’s Global Medical Office. “While we are a vaccine manufacturer, what we really do is try to fulfill a public health mission—introduce vaccines in a way that will have the greatest impact.”

It’s a complicated process, he said, requiring work with governments and agencies around the world. Having colleagues like Mostaghim and Garcia who understand the public health environment and are motivated to improve health equity, he said, has been beneficial as Takeda develops its strategy for bringing vaccines to market around the world.

For the students, working at Takeda has provided an opportunity to translate what they’ve learned in the DrPH program into action on a real-world problem. That was what excited Mostaghim. Takeda’s vaccine work “struck me as in that sweet spot of working on something that truly mattered for global public health,” he said. “The vaccine candidates in their pipeline have the potential to make a significant impact, particularly in low- and middle–income countries.”

Getting vaccines to those who need them most

Mostaghim entered the DrPH program after working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative. There, he established and led the global tuberculosis program, working with officials from ministries of health and global health agencies to improve access to tuberculosis medications.

At Takeda, he has focused on developing strategies for introducing a dengue vaccine candidate—which has not yet been licensed and is still undergoing safety and efficacy trials—to countries that have been hit hard by the mosquito-borne disease. His work involves analyzing the disease burden in each target country and its capacity to implement potential dengue vaccination programs.

Dengue is a leading cause of illness and death in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. While there currently is a dengue vaccine produced by the company Sanofi, there are concerns that it can put those who had not previously been exposed to the virus at risk of a more severe form of the disease.

Given that Takeda’s vaccine business unit is relatively new, it’s like a startup in some ways, Mostaghim said. Working on the dengue vaccine candidate—the first vaccine the company intends to launch globally—has given him the opportunity to contribute to policies that may have lasting impact at the company.

Garcia is working to understand how every stage of the vaccine development process can impact access to the final product, for example, whether it can be safely stored in countries with limited access to refrigeration.

Before coming to Harvard Chan School, first for his MPH and now his DrPH, Garcia worked for a decade for Doctors Without Borders. His experiences include leading a team that collected the bodies of Ebola victims in Liberia, assisting in the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis in Darfur, and running vaccination campaigns in countries including Chad and the Central African Republic. This work informed papers on global outbreak response that he co-authored with Jennifer Leigh, DrPH ’19, and adjunct professor Suerie Moon. They were published by BMJ and the Graduate Institute in Geneva earlier this year.

He chose Takeda for his DELTA Project, he said, because “I’m very interested in how people in the developing world get access to health care, and vaccines are a key part of the equation.”

Having seen public health in action from the perspective of a nongovernmental organization, Garcia is excited about getting an inside look into processes at a large pharmaceutical company. “It’s a great opportunity to get insight into those who make things happen in the private sector,” he said. This practical experience “complements the education I have received very well.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Cole Hanna