Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

January 23, 2008

Q&A with Larry Brilliant, executive director of

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:34 pm

I had a chat last week with Larry Brilliant, executive director of, Google’s philanthropic arm, which plans to tackle emerging diseases, climate change and poverty. I’ve tried to distill this into what’s known in journalism jargon as a Q&A format in this article in Nature tonight.

Brilliant has had a fascinating career; for a quick summary see the Wikipedia entry on him, including being involved in the eradication of smallpox. His TED talk can be found here, and while we are at TED, here are two must-watch TED talks on bringing health and poverty data to life by Hans Rosling from the Karolinska Institute — who is at at the moment. We gave Hans’s work a nod in a recent Nature editorial

Brilliant faces a major challenge in mapping out a coherent and effective strategy, but with Google’s resources and networks behind it, could be a real force for change; I for one will be watching the development of this young organization, which is still naturally finding its feet, with great interest.

Here are some excerpts from the Q&A with Larry Brilliant:

The grants announced last week were small compared with those made by the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program.

It’s too early for substantial funding but Google has set aside a generous amount for philanthropy — 1% of equity and 1% of profit. We’ve invested a total of US$75 million so far, but I consider these mostly exploratory grants. It is the beginning of a long process and we will be ramping up giving in the future.

How will the organization work to anticipate new pandemics?

With our ‘Predict and Prevent’ initiative we hope to develop an entire new science of epidemiology and surveillance, both for existing diseases and to spot emerging ones early on. One way is to strengthen national health services — look at the polio surveillance system in India, for example, which is the finest for any disease. We are now funding the Global Health and Security Initiative’s work on the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance network, to boost diagnostic capacities, train people and help create a regional surveillance network for this hotspot, which covers Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It is also using tabletop planning exercises with modern war-gaming techniques to better prepare a pandemic response. The Mekong project is about creating best practices that can then be transposed elsewhere. It’s all about sharing data, visualizing data and creating the IT tools that people would like these countries to have to mount fast and effective responses.

I see Google is also involved in biology.

We want to detect emerging pandemic agents. Humans are increasingly coming into closer contact with animals in many places, creating hotspots where new diseases emerge by jumping the species barrier. So we plan to support work that takes paired blood samples from animals eaten for bushmeat in Africa, and from their hunters. This will create genomic maps of the viruses present, and reveal how these agents change over time. It’s part of an entirely new chain of information gathering, which at some point will need to be centralized by the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health or a non-governmental organization.

How are your relations with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

I love the Gates Foundation, they are wonderful people, and we will work with them. They have been so kind to me and They invited us round to help us understand philanthropy and how it can best be used. When I heard Bill and Melinda speaking recently on their commitment to malaria, I had tears in my eyes.

And here’s one important question that got cut because of space:

Have you a message for Nature’s scientist and other readers?
Look at’s goals, and if convergent, they should articulate a way that they think they can help, and write to the relevant groups leader. We are looking for partners everywhere.

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