Publication date: 
September 28, 2015

Alan Magill catalyzed better science and collaboration in the malaria fight

Last week, the world lost a tireless champion against malaria, a remarkable scientist, and a good friend. Like the many people, organizations, and communities Alan Magill so positively affected, I have been struck by his sudden passing.

When you work in global health research, tenuousness of life underlies each analysis you run and every data point you encounter. After all, improving the world’s health through better evidence, innovations, and programs is our collective goal. As Malaria Program Director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Alan’s vision for a better world was one free of malaria, a tremendously difficult ambition that would advance the ways millions live for generations to come.

Alan didn’t underestimate the gravity of this challenge. He knew it would take unprecedented resources, scientific advancements, and political will to reach zero malaria. Yet Alan also had tremendous faith in our field’s ability to come together, to each play our role in malaria’s end game, whether it was mapping malaria transmission rates at the village level or advocating governments to fund a larger malaria medicine pipeline.

Alan uniquely understood what was needed to reach zero malaria, from working on the ground in malaria-endemic countries to speaking to Congress. He did whatever it took. In December last year, he wrote that the fight required nothing less than total commitment:

As history demonstrates, malaria isn’t amenable to 50% solutions. When we stop worrying about it, it comes back with a vengeance. Moreover, malaria is a rapidly evolving disease that will inevitably render useless every tool we can throw at it – if we let it. That’s why we need to stay invested in R&D to secure next-generation treatments, diagnostics, vaccines, and mosquito control methods that can accelerate the effort to eradicate malaria by middle of this century.

Alan also helped us, as a field, to come together to reset the baseline in our efforts to tackle malaria. Trevor Mundel, President of the Global Health Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke recently at a memorial service for Alan about how embattled the malaria community was just three years ago when Alan joined the Foundation. Over time, Alan helped scientists and NGOs shift away from our often siloed efforts in studying and controlling the disease to a more cohesive, powerful community focused on erasing malaria from this planet. I was proud to learn that Alan saw a recent paper I helped author in NatureThe effect of malaria control on Plasmodium falciparum in Africa between 2000 and 2015 – as a sign that the malaria field was now working more effectively together.

Last year, Alan was asked what kind of advice he’d give to young professionals interested in taking on the world’s infectious diseases. He responded, “To be successful in this field, you need to be passionate, you must follow your passion and you need to work really, really hard.”

Alan recognized the importance of passion-fueled, hard work, yet still conducted his day-to-day activities with great warmth and kindness toward his colleagues and collaborators. This kind of leader is a rarity in any field, and we were lucky to have him for as long as we did in the fight against malaria. To best honor Alan and what he gave to improving global health, we must continue to do good, hard work to realize the motto he adopted and had inscribed on a coin for his team, “Malaria delenda est” or “malaria must be destroyed.”

Dr. Simon Iain Hay is the Director of Geospatial Science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the co-founder of the Malaria Atlas Project.