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Rebecca Kahn

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

It began, back in February 2020, with a simple question: How much was Covid-19 spreading, undetected, in New York? 

Answers were hard to come by. So Rebecca Kahn, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, designed a tool to map out every pandemic scenario, ranging from a few scattered cases to an explosive, citywide outbreak.

Local governments across the U.S. began using the tool, and Kahn quickly became a go-to adviser for New York City’s pandemic response. Ever since, her research has informed nationwide Covid-19 policy on issues ranging from contact tracing to nursing home outbreaks to the “natural immunity” that comes from coronavirus infections. 

On vaccine issues, too, Kahn was uniquely prepared for Covid-19. Well before 2020, as a master’s and Ph.D. student, she studied the structure of clinical trials for vaccines being developed mid-epidemic. In the past year, her research has also informed health officials’ views on how long Covid vaccines can provide protection and whether a single dose generates meaningful immunity.

Kahn’s epidemiology career began at Duke University, where, by day, she studied public policy and global health. (By night, she was often among the horde of students camping out in tents outside the school’s basketball arena, jockeying for seats to the next game.) She then worked for PEPFAR, the State Department’s HIV/AIDS program, and later for Partners in Health, which deployed her to Sierra Leone as part of its response to the Ebola outbreak.

Thanks to Kahn’s emergence as one of the country’s top pandemic-response minds, she’ll soon return to government work. This summer, the CDC tapped Kahn to co-found a new center focused on epidemic forecasting and outbreak analytics.

— Lev Facher