Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is an infectious disease epidemiologist who serves as the technical lead for the COVID-19 response at the World Health Organization as well as the Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit Head. She began her journey in global health given her interest in viruses and how they infect and impact both humans and animals. She received her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Cornell University, her master’s degree in epidemiology from Stanford University, and a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology from the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine. Dr. Kerkhove authored her PhD on pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 in Cambodia. Following her PhD, she was a postdoctoral researcher with the WHO and acted as a liaison for the Imperial College London’s MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis. Dr. Van Kerkhove continued working with the WHO and prior to COVID-19, was serving as the MERS-CoV Technical Lead in addition to being the Unit Head for the Emerging Disease and Zoonoses Unit. Her focus in these areas includes developing prevention and control programs around high threat respiratory pathogens.
In late December 2019, Dr. Van Kerkhove was in the United States and when she heard about the “cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology” in China, it immediately raised alarm bells for her and the WHO team. Reacting to the emergence of COVID-19, Dr. Van Kerkhove was a part of a coalition of WHO teams that worked to organize known information at that time. Within two weeks of the initial cluster notification, the WHO published guidance on how to respond to COVID-19 based on prior work, such as Dr. Van Kerhove’s experiences with MERS, and the first PCR assay of COVID-19.
As COVID-19 spread around the globe, Dr. Van Kerkhove became a spokesperson for WHO communications in the weekly, sometimes daily, press releases conducted throughout the pandemic. In this role, she faced the issue of striking a delicate balance between conveying the severity of COVID-19 and remaining calm—she did not want to be accused of being an alarmist. She is still working at the WHO as the Technical Lead for COVID-19 and develops guidance, training programs, and information products for the continuously evolving state of the pandemic.