Gates Foundation's director of global health is retiring
The director of global health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will retire in June, after five years leading the foundation's largest division.
Seattle Times science reporter
When Dr. Tachi Yamada hired on as their global health chief in 2006, Bill and Melinda Gates asked how long he would stay.
"I said five years," Yamada recalled. That clock runs out in June, and Yamada announced Monday that's when he will take his leave from the world's richest philanthropy.
"In a five-year time frame you can be energetic, enthusiastic, innovative and very, very engaged," he said in an interview. "Then the organization can benefit if another leader with that same kind of drive and energy comes in."
The position Yamada is relinquishing earned him a spot on a Forbes magazine list of the most powerful people in medicine. During his tenure at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Yamada presided over a rapid expansion as spending and staff tripled. In 2009, global health programs accounted for $1.8 billion out of $3 billion in grants.
"In a relatively short time, [Yamada] has become a major figure in global health," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, vice president for global health at Emory University in Atlanta.
At the foundation, Yamada, 65, sharpened the focus on vaccine development as the most cost-effective way to battle disease in the developing world. He drew on his experience as chief of research and development for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to help accelerate the manufacture and distribution of existing vaccines against meningitis and childhood diarrhea, while also sponsoring research on vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.
"He came with a strong product-development background at GSK, which made him think about outcomes and products and milestones ... in a way that academics don't often think," said Dr. Roger Glass, director of the Fogarty International Center, a federal global health-research center.
Under Yamada's leadership, the foundation helped create the Access to Medicine Index, which ranks drug companies based on their efforts to provide low-cost medications to low-income people and countries around the world.
Yamada scaled back some of the foundation's spending on speculative research in favor of projects with real-world promise. And he pushed the foundation and its grantees to do a better job of measuring results — which Yamada said he came to value after working for a pharma CEO who played professional tennis. "He always said: If you're not keeping score, you're just practicing."
Yamada asked tough questions of a team at Emory who received Gates funding to help establish health-research centers in African countries, Koplan said. "His message has been that you need to be able to demonstrate the impact you're having on real health issues."
One of his major goals at the foundation was to bring a sense of urgency to the quest for cures and improved health, Yamada said in an interview monitored by a public-relations representative. "We kind of feel like every day we didn't get something done results in pain or suffering or death."
Yamada and other observers agreed his departure won't hamper ongoing Gates Foundation programs, including the drive to eradicate polio and expand routine childhood vaccinations.
Any big institution has a lot of "bench strength," Koplan said, and those staffers will keep the work on track.
The foundation has launched a search for Yamada's replacement.
Yamada said he's in discussions over an opportunity that would enable him to do something "substantial" in his native Japan.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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