Larry Brilliant, Skoll Global Threats Fund

TITLE: Acting Chairman, Skoll Global Threats Fund

FUNDING AREAS: Climate change, water, pandemics, smallholder productivity and food security, sustainable markets, nuclear proliferation, and Middle East conflict

CONTACT: lbrilliant@skollfoundation.org, (650) 331-1031

IP TAKE: Having worked for decades in the developing world on health and environmental issues, Brilliant keenly appreciates the impacts that climate change and disease outbreaks have on the world’s poorest.

PROFILE: Larry Brilliant, MD, MPH, was on the scene in 1975, when the last smallpox victim in history was found in a village in Bhola Island, India, and brought to the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication unit for treatment. Working on behalf of the United Nations as an epidemiologist in that unit, Brilliant saw a girl, Rahima Banu, survive and leave the hospital to grow up, marry, and raise four children. Brilliant cherishes the memory of that village and the triumph that it represents to him. But now he can no longer visit it—the entire village is underwater, a casualty of climate change.

The human capacity to save lives through innovation and, conversely, the human potential to destroy lives through the destruction of ecosystems and resources—both are intensely personal to Brilliant. Today, as acting Chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, he speaks and labors across the globe to advance climate-change mitigation and disease prevention, along with other human development causes.

They all tie together, he often tells his audiences. Climate change exacerbates disease, as well as water shortages, warfare, and other threats to human well-being.

His work at Skoll is something he deemed important enough to leave Google for; before coming to Skoll, Brilliant was Chief Philanthropic Evangelist at the dot.com giant, meaning he ran their foundation.

“We need to work not just on primary prevention of global warming, but on the secondary prevention of the consequences of global warming on the poorest and most vulnerable,” he said at the January 2007 Skoll World Forum—two years before becoming an employee of the foundation.

Since his time at Skoll, Brilliant has dispensed considerable sums toward the primary and secondary goals alike. In addition to the $15 million that he granted to the Climate Reality Project, and $750,000 to Rockefeller Philanthropy Services, both for campaigns to raise public awareness about climate change, he has also allocated sizable grants to initiatives that remedy climate-change-related water shortages: $700,000 to Friends of the Earth-Middle East for water initiatives in Israel and the Palestine Authority; and $300,000 to the Inter-American Development Bank for a program to analyze drought patterns in the La Plata Basin, Argentina.

Projects to combat diseases are also top-priority items for Brilliant. He’s given $750,000 to the International Council for the Life Sciences to fund new data networks for identifying and stopping disease outbreaks in Africa and the Middle East, and $440,000 to Global Solutions for Infectious Disease to enhance rapid diagnoses of new disease outbreaks throughout the developing world.  

Medicine’s progress in developing treatments and vaccines for diseases such as smallpox is an exciting long-term trend to Brilliant. He’s said that he personally looks forward to seeing guinea worm and polio be eliminated next.

But also he stresses the importance of early detection and treatment. Speaking at a conference at Oxford University in London in September 2012, he spoke highly of the progress that the world has made in spotting new disease threats: In 1996, it took 167 days to find an epidemic, but only 23 days in 2009. He called for ongoing work to make detection and diagnosis even faster—the sooner we catch an outbreak, he noted, the more lives we can save.  

“It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in epidemiology in my lifetime since the eradication of smallpox,” he said of early detection and diagnostic methods.

Brilliant praises digital disease-detection systems as important tools for this. Organized action by the world’s governments is critically important to him, as well. In the same lecture, he singled out words of approval for Connecting Organizations for Regional Disease Surveillance (CORDS), an international platform through which health departments of many national governments communicate with each other about new health risks and coordinate solutions. CORDS launched in 2009 with startup funds from a number of foundations, including Skoll.  

“You need good governance,” he said. “Until we get cooperation from governments we can’t stop epidemics. We’re never going to stop the first virus from jumping from an animal to a human. So we have to act after that.”

Brilliant first visited India in 1970 after spending a brief time in Nepal, where he studied at a Himalayan monastery. He left with the blessing of his teacher Neem Karoli Baba, who told Brilliant that he was destined to help put an end to smallpox—a destiny that Brilliant lived out over the next 10 years, which he spent on the WHO’s smallpox eradication team.

From the 1980s onwards, he worked in government capacities at the state, federal, and international levels, and founded “Pandafense,” a consortium of experts that assess future risks of influenza pandemics. In addition, he volunteered for tsunami relief in Sri Lanka and was a “first responder” for the CDC’s smallpox bioterrorism-response program. He has also authored two books and dozens of articles on global health policy, infectious diseases, and blindness.  

His educational background, like his career path, reflects an interdisciplinary approach. Dr. Larry Brilliant earned a Master’s in both health planning and economic development from the University of Michigan. He later received a medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and is board certified in preventative medicine and public health. He served as To learn more about him, read his official bio.

VIDEOS:

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