Skip to content

A New Interim Director for the Institute for Pandemics

July 15/2021

Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Nelson Lee returned from postgraduate training in Vancouver to become one of the first infectious disease physicians in his native Hong Kong. A year later, in March 2003, his hospital became ground zero for the SARS outbreak.

When Lee first identified the outbreak, over 138 patients and healthcare workers, including nurses, physicians, respiratory therapies, and medical students, were found to be infected by the then-unknown coronavirus. The numbers continued to grow among hospital workers and inpatients, and as the infection became more widespread in the community, hundreds of people were admitted for medical care.

“It was a catastrophe,” recalls Lee, who had to separate from his family, including a one-year-old son, for several months while he struggled to contain the epidemic. By April, he was the lead author on a seminal paper reporting the Hong Kong outbreak in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A lifelong passion for chasing epidemics was born.

Since SARS, Lee has studied other coronavirus diseases, avian, epidemic and pandemic influenza, and many viral epidemics that have posed major public health threats. With an interdisciplinary approach, he has conducted a wide range of studies to understand the epidemiology, disease burden, health outcomes, transmission modes and prevention, as well as antiviral and vaccine effectiveness against viral respiratory infections. He has shared his knowledge and experience with the wider medical community and health authorities, with the aim to improve our awareness and responses to epidemics and pandemics. Having worked on the front line, he has a close understanding of the tragedies these diseases inflict on patients and their families, and the larger impacts on the society.

“My whole career is building around epidemics and pandemics,” says Lee, the newly appointed interim director of the Institute for Pandemics (IfP) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Being able to work in this field is a privilege.”

Lee is fascinated by the unique demands of each emerging epidemic, and the detective work required to identify a novel virus and predict its course.

“Nearly all the major epidemics we experienced in the past 20 years were caused by novel viruses,” he says. “Most come from the human-animal interface, and each brings its own set of challenges. I find that exciting – and in the future, I think we are going to see it again, because of the complex interaction of factors such as urbanization and frequent international travel in the modern world. Also, once infections start in crowded mega-cities, they’re difficult to stop. That’s why we need new ways to track and tackle epidemics and pandemics.”

He is also passionate about helping health systems and the community to prepare for pandemics, manage them and recover from them – a major focus of the nascent IfP.

“U of T has a lot of talents and expertise in pandemic science,” says Lee. “I hope I can bring people together from across the university to develop research, to prevent and manage future epidemics. I also hope we can reduce health-care burdens, improve policies and decision-making, and also to assist in recovery of the society. I want to provide a good platform for people to work together and advance the science around these complex, challenging and multidimensional issues.”

Lee plans to attract experts not just in public health, but also in a wide range of disciplines, from basic and applied sciences, medicine, to public policies and economics, amongst others.

U of T’s size and scope will be a major strength in developing educational programs to equip future health-care leaders to successfully respond to the complexity of pandemics. And Lee will continue to develop ties between the IfP and institutes and government bodies around the world, including in the US and UK.

“How will we detect an imminent pandemic earlier so that our health systems can prepare? How do we structure our health systems to be more resilient in pandemics? How do we respond more rapidly and effectively to minimize the negative impacts to our economy and society?” Lee asks.  “There are many questions we need to answer – and we need to build up our capacity to do so.”