‘You can do something that could save somebody else’s life,’ says Fairborn grad who helped develop social distancing strategy

Roughly 15 years ago, Rajeev Venkayya helped lead a team of doctors and researchers that developed the pandemic response policy that has Americans practicing social distancing today.

Nowadays the Dayton area-raised physician is championing a global cause that may see plasma used to save the lives of people battling the coronavirus.

There was no way to see any of that coming the day he gave his Fairborn High School valedictorian speech.

“I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do in high school, but I knew that I enjoyed science and math and figured I would do something in that space,” he told this news organization.

An interview with Venkayya is featured on the latest episode of the “What Had Happened Was” podcast.


He is now the president of the global vaccine business unit for the Japan-based pharmaceutical company Takeda, but between 2005 and 2007 he was the director for biodefense under President George W. Bush.

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As part of his appointment, Venkayya, the son of Beavercreek's Janaki Venkayya and the late Vipperla B. Venkayya, was tasked with developing strategies to respond to bioterrorism and natural disease emergencies.

He was the principal author of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

A married father of two, his life’s work has taken many turns.

Credit: Liz Linder Photography

Credit: Liz Linder Photography

He says he had trepidation about medicine during his first few years at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine that diminished as he got hands-on experience.

“I really enjoyed taking care of patients and so that reinforced for me that I was on a good path. That feeling only increased when I got to my medical residency at the University of Michigan, and continued when I did my specialty training in pulmonary and critical care medicine (at the University of California),” he said. “I really appreciated having the impact that I was able to, in the roles that I had.”

Venkayya found advancement.

He was chief medical resident in internal medicine while in Michigan and served as an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of California between 1999 and 2002.

While in San Francisco he applied for the White House Fellows Program.

“(It) takes people from different backgrounds and puts them in government at a senior level for one year to have that exposure, learn about policy, leadership, and public service and ideally take that back to whatever field they came from and wherever they came from,” he said. “That was my plan going into the fellowship, but during that year, I found an opportunity to help out at the White House in the biodefense arena, which is very much focused on medicine, public health and science. That was a good fit given my interest.”

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Venkayya remained in the White House four years total and during that time became a major figure in how the United States would prepare for pandemics like the coronavirus.

The 1985 Fairborn grad reported to Frances Townsend, the president's senior adviser for homeland security, and served as an adviser to Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The threat of a pandemic became real during his time in the White House.

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“The bird flu threat became real for countries in Asia, and the U.S. became very concerned that the virus would jump over to humans and become easily transmissible between humans and cause severe influenza pandemic like what we had seen in 1918 or worse,” Venkayya said. “The office that I was running at the time was staffed by people that had either medical or veterinary backgrounds, but also knew something about making policy. So the natural home for the coordination of the pandemic flu efforts was our office, the biodefense office in the White House.”

Venkayya, the older brother of Dayton native Arundi Venkayya Pasheilich, chief communications officer for the Ohio Department of Health, said his team and other departments and agencies began to gather information before President Bush asked for a plan in October of 2005.  

“We brought together all of the great work that had been done so far. And we (put) it together in a single strategy document,” he said.

It took about three weeks for Venkayya and his team to deliver the $7.1 billion National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza announced by Bush in November of 2005.

Now a Boston resident, Venkayya is mentioned prominently in a recent New York Times article about the birth of social distancing, a practice based partly on lessons learned from the Spanish flu, a high school science fair and several researchers and physicians.

The work led to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions policy and through updates, the Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza, which, the Times says, states use to encourage social distancing and other measures.

Credit: Liz Linder Photography

Credit: Liz Linder Photography


Venkayya says what became the Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza was first issued in 2007 after receiving major push back.

He called it the template for many of the actions that communities are taking today to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

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“The types of things that are being done now are very similar to what we envisioned in 2007, but they go much further than we expected at the time. We did not  envision at the time that we would have a situation in which everybody in a community was being encouraged to just stay at home. Everybody,” he said.

“We were envisioning that the actions would be taken at a point in time where if you acted quickly that you could reduce overall virus transmission so these extreme measures would not be necessary. You would only have to keep people at home that had a family member that was sick, for instance.”

Venkayya said the extreme actions have been necessary in the United States and abroad due to how swiftly the virus has spread.

“It really took a lot of communities by surprise,” he said.

Venkayya said much has been learned about the virus and he is optimistic that a vaccine will be found. He said that even without a vaccine, the virus can be controlled to an extent.

“We should all feel good about the fact that the extreme measures that have been necessary have been effective. The problem is that the measures have been so extreme that they have put a stop to very important activities that are necessary for the functioning of society (and the) economy,” he said. “Now our challenge is to find the right level of restrictions that allows us to do the things that are necessary to keep people working, keep communities functioning, while at the same time not taking on a great risk of virus transmission.”


His company, Takeda, one of the world’s top plasma product manufacturers, formed the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, an initiative to accelerate the development of a potential treatment for coronavirus.

Plasma  is being collected at centers across the U.S. from healthy individuals who have recovered from COVID-19.

Researchers believe the plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients may contain critical antibodies that could be used to make an experimental treatment.

The alliance also includes plasma companies  Biotest, BPL, LFB, and Octapharma and CSL Behring.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for which Venkayya previously worked as  director of Vaccine Delivery, is an advisory partner.

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Venkayya said antibodies from those who have recovered from coronavirus may be able to help those fighting it if those antibodies are introduced into their bodies early.

“If it is early in their illness, their bodies haven't had time to develop the antibodies to protect them against COVID-19. That takes a couple of weeks or longer,” he said. What we're doing is we're essentially getting them the antibodies that their bodies will develop a few weeks later, and we're bringing it forward in time, right now when they need it most.”

The hope is that the treatment will reduce the illness’ severity and shorten its duration and  the time patients spend in the hospital.

The companies in the alliance are working collaboratively and will distribute an unbranded product to patients, he said.

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He encourages those who think they may have had the coronavirus to contact their nearest plasma center and donate.

“This is something that is as simple as a blood draw. Tom Hanks did it recently and he said it's as simple as taking a nap. In that short period of time you can do something that could save somebody else's life,” he said. “I would say to everybody who is looking at this, this incredibly difficult moment in history for all of us, and asking what can I do to help others, if you know somebody that has been through a COVID-19 infection and has recovered and wants to help make a difference, suggest this to them.”

More information can be found at CoVIg-19PlasmaAlliance.org. 

Venkayya said there is a need for smart, passionate and committed people like Dayton-area grads who maybe considering careers in medicine.

“You can do a lot of good in the world by going into health care. Your path in health care may start off in one direction because you want to help people and you may think that's being a physician — if you do that, that's incredible — but there are also many, many other things you can do in health care that will make a difference in people's lives,” he said. “You just have to look at what's happening in this pandemic right now. It's nurses and technicians and physicians, and people who are assistants, who are all doing their part to make sure the health care system is working and is able to treat not just the people with COVID-19, but everybody else in the community that relies on your hospitals and clinics and physician offices to work.”

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