Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, was presented with a Physicians for Human Rights 2021 Award in a ceremony broadcast globally May 16. This year’s award honored the medical, public health and scientific experts, philanthropists and advocates “working to bring evidence-based and rights-based solutions to the global COVID-19 response.”
Since 2015, Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based NGO, has held an annual event “to honor the brave individuals working at the intersection of medicine, science, and human rights to protect and defend the health, dignity, and fundamental freedoms of all people around the world.” This year, the celebration was held virtually and livestreamed around the world, with opening remarks by esteemed actress Meryl Streep and a Bach sarabande performed by renowned cellist Yoyo Ma.
Dr Horton was recognized for his extraordinary leadership and advocacy on global health issues and as a leading scientific and human rights voice at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His award was presented by Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden, who has worked with Dr Horton for three decades on some of the most critical health issues.
Extending his “enthusiastic congratulations,” Dr Fauci remarked:
Even a global pandemic is no match for his tireless and dedicated drive for advancing public health and social justice on a planetary level.
Several colleagues, global health leaders, academics and friends of Dr Horton joined the ceremony to give their own tributes and testimonies.
"A leading voice to sound the alarm about COVID-19"
Dr Horton's close colleague and friend of more than 20 years, Senior Executive Editor of The Lancet Dr Pamela Das, described working with Dr Horton at the start of the pandemic as “exhilarating, definitely enlightening — and lot of times exhausting.”
She spoke of how Dr Horton was a “leading voice to sound the alarm about COVID-19.” In January 2020, The Lancet published the first scientific paper on the Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China and another detailing A familial cluster of pneumonia associated with the 2019 novel coronavirus indicating person-to-person transmission. These were pivotal papers published six weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Dr Das described the role Dr Horton wanted his journal to play in the pandemic response:
There was an imperative to publish the best available scientific knowledge and debate that would inform the response to contain and mitigate the virus. Richard was on the front lines of the crisis as the Editor of The Lancet. He saw the science as it was happening. By doing so, Richard made us feel part of the response.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also sent a message of tribute. He described Dr Horton as an “icon on global health” and admired “his ability to connect science and research to politics, economics, the environment and human rights.” He concluded, “Thank you for everything you have done and everything you are.”
Speaking about Dr Horton’s role as an outspoken activist, Dr Kerry Sulkowicz, Physicians for Human Rights board member, described Dr Horton as a “human rights activist in disguise” and said what makes him special is how deeply human he is.
Dr Horton’s friend and colleague Prof Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health talked about how Dr Horton spoke out and advocated for his own government to urgently take necessary actions to respond to COVID-19 — and to protect the health professionals on the front lines who were not adequately protected. He called Dr Horton a “voice of vigorous opposition to a profoundly flawed public health policy” and added: “The British people are very lucky to have Richard Horton at the wheel.”
The ceremony also featured an interview with Dr Horton by CBS News Correspondent Anna Werner. Dr Horton talked about how he is motivated by the idea that knowledge is an instrument for social progress, with health as a human right at the heart. They also discuss how Dr Horton predicted the COVID-19 vaccine equity challenges facing the world today and the current COVID-19 situation in India, which Dr Horton describes as the “worst moment in the pandemic” so far.
For BioNTech co-founders, a Lancet article piqued their concern of an impending pandemic
Also honored were Dr Uğur Şahin and Dr Özlem Türeci — the husband-wife team that co-founded BioNTech — for mRNA research that led to developing the first COVID-19 vaccine in collaboration with Pfizer.
When asked about the moment they realized we were going to have a pandemic, Dr Şahin said he was reading the above-mentioned article in The Lancet on Friday, Jan 24, 2020, about the new outbreak in Wuhan:
The publication showed a number of features of this outbreak, which … created a lot of concern. I did some calculations and realized that this is already a situation where the virus has most likely already spread worldwide.
He was right. Their team went on to develop the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in an unprecedented 11-month time frame, enabling many across the globe to defend themselves against COVID-19 quickly.
The ceremony was a touching and well-deserved celebration of Dr Horton and The Lancet’s contributions to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch the full ceremony
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