A new face at PP 55 brings ideas, energy

Merck’s Douglas assumes post this month

When Gordon Douglas, MD, president of Merck Vaccines, retires from the business of making vaccines this month, he won’t be putting his feet up. Instead, Douglas plans to step into a new full-time position, that of managing the day-to-day operations at Princeton Project 55 (PP 55), a public service organization founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader and consisting of Princeton University alumni.

Along with extensive TB-related expertise, Douglas will bring to PP 55 a focus that Nader has not had the time to provide. Many observers predict that Douglas’ arrival at the helm of the organization will bring fresh energy to the group’s fight to make TB more visible on national policy-makers’ radar screens.

Douglas says he harbors few illusions about the difficulty of the challenge that lies ahead. "The fact that TB kills 3 million people a year, that it’s the No. 1 killer among infectious diseases worldwide, to most people, all that seems like just one more piece of bad news. What we have to do is try different approaches and try to discover what messages resonate with people. We need to find new ways to attach the message more closely to individual concerns."

TB control is good foreign policy

One idea is to position TB not as a single entity, but as one of a group of "emerging infectious diseases," he says. "If you talk about TB to someone in Congress, it seems like a narrowly focused issue. But emerging infectious diseases’ — that’s something people are worried about and something they can readily relate to."

Global TB control also should be framed as good foreign policy, Douglas says. "It’s one sure way that we as a nation can help poor countries to grow. That’s another way we can tie TB into a bigger picture and help it to resonate better."

It’s also important to send out consistent messages about TB, he adds. "If one group is talking about one thing, and a second group about another, it confuses people. That’s why part of what needs to be done is to build coalitions and make sure we’re all sending the same message."

There’s no single prototype organization Douglas aims to emulate, he adds, but as a longtime board member of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, he plans to push equally hard for the development of a better vaccine for TB. "The focus on vaccine development is absolutely critical," he says. "It’s also something that, until recently, has been missing from TB messages. Until we have a vaccine, we won’t materially affect the world’s death rate from TB or control the epidemic."

PP 55’s principal role is to "energize" the process of advocating for a vaccine and for better TB control, he adds. "People in the struggle against TB sometimes get discouraged, but we are going to re-energize them," he says. "I’ve been on the board of PP 55 but until now, I haven’t had as much time to devote to it as I would have liked. As a Merck corporate officer, I must retire at age 65, so as of May 1st, I’m out of here."

Nader will continue to play an important role in guiding PP 55, he says. "But I’ll be able to provide more day-to-day direction and to give the talented young people we’ve hired as project managers the ongoing support they need."