For decades, visionary leaders have showcased how Atlanta is a center for global health.
The vision still holds true, despite a setback with the dismantling of the Center for Global Health Innovation (CGHI).
In conversations with several Atlanta leaders – several who were closely involved with CGHI – a common theme emerged. Atlanta and Georgia must not let the dissolution of CGHI overshadow the persuasive vision of bringing the city’s and state’s global health community together to leverage our unique assets.
Rebecca Martin, vice president of Global Health and Emory’s Global Health Institute, set the stage while introducing Mandy Cohen, the relatively new director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon Sept. 6 at the Commerce Club.
“Atlanta is the global health capital,” Martin stated unequivocally.
Two of Atlanta’s preeminent global health leaders – Bill Foege and Mark Rosenberg – have been beating that drum for more than two decades. Foege is a former director of the CDC, and Rosenberg is the retired president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.
In an email, Rosenberg said the struggles of CGHI “should be seen as a bump in the road and not the end of the road.”
That sentiment was embraced by Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, a private entity that supports the CDC’s efforts around the globe.
“We can’t let this stop the fact that we need to move forward and keep the vision front and center,” Monroe said in a brief interview on Monday. “The timing (of CGHI) was terrible, but having said that, the assets here in Atlanta and Georgia are far too powerful for us not to realize this global health vision.”
CGHI was supposed to emerge as the catalyst to bring the global health community together.
In December 2021, CGHI announced it had signed a 200,000-square-foot lease at the former AT&T tower at 675 West Peachtree St. as a place where many global health community partners could physically be in one space.
Gary Reedy, past chair of the CGHI board and retired CEO of the American Cancer Society, explained what happened to what he described as “a terrific concept” that made so much sense.
“We were under the impression we had more than adequate funding lined up. But that didn’t materialize,” Reedy said. “We signed the lease in good faith, but we were saddled with paying $180,000 a month rent, and we weren’t raising the necessary funding. To me, it became more of a real estate deal as opposed to a center of collaboration to bring these organizations together.”
It didn’t help that the owner of the building is Icahn Enterprises (as in Carl Icahn, a savvy businessman who is also referred to as a corporate raider.)
According to people close to the situation, the lease was backed by two letters of credit totaling $5 million. CGHI defaulted on its lease at the beginning of the year, which triggered the letters of credit being paid to Icahn.
In short, Icahn Enterprises was able to get nearly $7 million out of CGHI for space that was never built out or occupied.
“Sometimes we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes,” Rosenberg said. “Atlanta still has a wealth of good people and good and strong institutions that can make a unique and invaluable contribution to the global health and well-being of the least-well-off people around the world.”
As Rosenberg sees it, Atlanta can make a unique contribution in the area of global health equity and public health.
Consider just some of the events taking place in the next week or so.
On Sept. 14, the Morehouse School of Medicine, in partnership with KPMG, will host the inaugural Dr. David Satcher Global Health Equity Summit at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The summit will convene health equity leaders in health care, academia and technology to explore efforts to eradicate health disparities.
On Sept. 13, the international relief organization – CARE – will celebrate its 30-year anniversary of being based in Atlanta. CARE is one of many global entities in Atlanta working to improve the lives of the poor around the world.
And on Sept. 21, Health Connect South will hold its 10th annual gathering at the Georgia Aquarium. Russ Lipari, founder and CEO of Health Connect South, said the gathering brings the health community together to promote collaboration. “I hope we’ve been able to spur dialogue on how our health community works together,” Lipari said.
Monroe said there are so many global threats to health that it is incumbent on Atlanta and Georgia to “lean in” to work on solutions with the various local partners.
“At the CDC Foundation, there is excitement and energy around what we can do together,” Monroe said. “You take all the players, and there’s energy for all of us coming together.”
Ross Mason, a board member of CGHI and founder of the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators, or HINRI for short, agreed. Mason also has been working for decades to leverage the capabilities of the health community in Atlanta and Georgia.
CGHI had “tremendous grant-writing successes.” Mason wants to make sure that work continues after CGHI has closed down its operations. As he sees it, Atlanta’s competitive advantage is its focus on global health disparities and helping meet the needs of those facing the greatest challenges.
“The goal of helping to make the world a healthier, safer and more equitable place is too important to give up on,” Rosenberg said. “This was a bump in the road, a hard and rocky road, to be sure. We can learn from this experience and come back better and stronger.”
That was the spirit of several people interviewed.
One area of optimism is the CDC with its new director, Mandy Cohen. She has a place in Atlanta. Since being sworn in and starting her job on July 10, she has spent 27 of the last 45 days in Atlanta.
“You have to be in person to do the work,” Cohen said after the APC lunch of her role at the CDC.
When it comes to global health, Cohen acknowledged that most of her background has been in domestic health and that global health is a new area for her.
“I look forward to interfacing with the global health community in Atlanta,” Cohen said. “I am certainly in a learning mode.”
Case in point, Cohen has spoken to virtually all the living former CDC directors, making special mention of Bill Foege, an inspirational leader who has galvanized the global health community in Atlanta, Georgia and around the world.
Rosenberg, a protégé of Foege, has been a leader in his own right, co-founding the Georgia Global Health Alliance, a predecessor entity of CGHI.
“Atlanta is a city of truly incredible resources: people, organizations, knowledge, and materials,” Rosenberg said. “The world can benefit from what we have and who we are. And God knows, the world could use some improving.”
Rosenberg went on to list just some of the assets in Atlanta, starting with the “world’s preeminent public and global health organization” – the CDC. He then mentioned CARE, the Carter Center, MedShare, the Task Force for Global Health and the academic institutions – Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and Emory University – adding that we have great strength in the private sector, especially in biotech and logistics.
“But getting these organizations to work effectively together as a coalition is hard, really hard,” Rosenberg said.
The upside, however, is too great not to leverage what we have.
“We have the pieces, parts and components, and it’s time to pull together – to bring the global health community back together,” said Larry Williams, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Georgia. “There’s an opportunity to reimagine this collaboration and to recognize Atlanta and Georgia as a hub for global health. We shouldn’t let it die.”