CIDRAP: Two Decades of ‘Straight Talk’ on Infectious Diseases

For over a year now, the world has rushed to understand and adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Those keeping informed by reading, watching, or listening to the news have likely seen the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and its director, Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, serve as guiding voices at many points in the process.

What they might not be aware of, however, is that this University of Minnesota research center has played an integral role in bolstering public health professionals’ ability to prepare for and respond to infectious disease threats long before COVID-19. For the past 20 years, CIDRAP has worked across academic disciplines to conduct research and translate scientific information into real-world policies and solutions that aim to prevent illness and death. The center has served as a global leader in providing guidance on some of the diseases with the highest potential and actual human health impacts, including Ebola virus, Zika virus, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Headshot of Michael Osterholm participating in an expert panel
Osterholm, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in the School of Public Health, said CIDRAP focuses on “straight talk.” The center aims to communicate the science behind infectious diseases without any spin, but still with a sense of compassion for those affected and for what guidance will help people the most. Apart from its experts’ interviews with news media, the center provides updates on infectious diseases through daily news stories and podcasts like the Osterholm Update.  

Additionally, CIDRAP offers the CIDRAP Leadership Forum (CLF), a high-value, highly responsive service that ensures businesses and organizations have rapid access to critical intelligence on emerging infectious disease threats and public health issues. Members say CLF provides insight and analysis they cannot find easily anywhere else.

CIDRAP convenes some of the top experts in the world to collaborate on projects such as producing roadmaps for the development and rollout of vaccines.

“CIDRAP is in a unique position of not being influenced by politics, whether international, national, or local,” Osterholm said. “So experts—including the World Health Organization—turn to us as a resource for bringing together international experts on a number of topics and providing data to help guide policy.”

CIDRAP currently has about 10 ongoing research programs. One of the most prominent studies the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance, where medicines designed to treat infections of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes lose effectiveness. Another major area of study is optimizing flu vaccines, to more broadly protect against the seasonal flu each year that kills as many as 650,000 people worldwide. The center is also closely monitoring chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease in deer, elk, and moose that experts fear may spread to humans. A relatively new programs focuses on the key issue of drug supply chains, the fragility of which has been laid bare by the COVID pandemic.

As it continues to provide research and guidance on COVID-19, CIDRAP is also focusing on how the world can better prepare for future pandemics to limit the impact on human health. Osterholm said CIDRAP stands ready to pivot to new diseases quickly as they arise, noting that the center began its work on COVID-19 long before the disease was predicted to become a pandemic.

“No one can predict what the future holds, but CIDRAP will always follow the science and lead the way in promoting comprehensive and authoritative messaging, research, and policy,” he said.