Bill Sniffin: Wyoming Man Predicted Pandemic 15 Years Ago, At World Economic Forum

in Column/Bill Sniffin

By Bill Sniffin

Hank McKinnell of Jackson predicted today’s worldwide pandemic during a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 15 years ago.

McKinnell recalls making a joint presentation with Dr. Julie Gerberding of the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, where they said the world was overdue for a pandemic. When it comes, he asked the crowd, you may be asked to isolate yourselves in your home for six months. “How many of you are able to do that willingly?”  He said that only himself and Gerberding raised their hands.

So here we are one and a half decades later and the people are in a pandemic for the COVID-19 coronavirus. And folks are practicing the social isolation McKinnell both predicted and recommended in that speech.

McKinnell knows all about this stuff. He is the retired CEO of Pfizer, a worldwide pharmaceutical company with 110,000 employees. He has worked with President Trump’s chief advisor Dr. Tony Fauci for years. McKinnell spent 50 years in the healthcare field and has been on several presidential commissions.

Some weeks ago, he approached the Teton County Health Officer about coming up with a way “to test everyone in our valley for the virus.”  He believes data is the key to solving this crisis.  His plan was thwarted at the time because of the inability to locate enough tests.  He is still hopeful this effort could be done, especially with the arrival of the new same-day tests coming down the line.

He is huge proponent of social distancing. “Since we do not have tools right now, we have to flatten out the effects,” he says. “Keeping people apart is the best tool available.”

He is hopeful that a treatment will be available in 3-4 months.  “We may have a treatment by September,” he says.  He said his son is an infectious disease specialist in California and is also working on this. “The medical profession is learning how to manage this disease,” he said. “The death rate will go down.”

McKinnell published a book in 2005 called A Call To Action, which outlined a new prevention-based approach to employee healthcare. He also pointed out why pharmaceutical companies had lost the public’s trust and how they could regain it. One of the key chapters in the book detailed “how we can lose the race between the world’s most insidious virus,” which is a subject he knows a lot about. He was talking about the HIV virus which had killed millions.

In his book, McKinnell writes about the HIV pandemic, which is the worst the world has ever known. He writes that it is beyond the scope of governments acting alone – and how, even in the face of devastating global catastrophes, public-private partnerships can deliver real hope.

McKinnell was a keynote speaker at the Governor’s Business Forum in Cheyenne about 10 years ago.  

While CEO of Pfizer, he founded the Infectious Diseases Institute in Uganda, one of the most respected facilities in the world when it comes to pandemic-style viruses.  The building there is called the IDI- McKinnell Knowledge Center.  Horrific viruses like HIV and Ebola have come from Africa, thus creating the need for such a center. Dr. Fauci was of assistance in helping to set up the center.

In other news related to the current times, McKinnell recently announced the donation of $250,000 for scholarships for young men and women, to attend the state’s community colleges to learn “trades.”

He was not always a businessman.  He explained that he grew up wanting to be a ship’s captain and worked on boats while growing up in British Columbia. As a young person uncertain of his future, his father convinced him to go to college. He ended up going to Stanford for a Masters and Ph.D., which led to his five-decade career at Pfizer.

“I was sort of drifting along,” he recalls. “Much like many young people in Wyoming today probably are, too.”  He said it occurred to him that many of them may have needed a helping hand.

He responded to an announcement by his friend Foster Friess who also granted $250,000 for students headed to the state’s community colleges, as a way to learn well-paying trade jobs and improve their lives. McKinnell said they are still working out details to see if they should double the number of scholarships or increase the amount of each scholarship.

McKinnell is an inspiration. He is an example of a person using his unique talents to help his fellow man. 

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