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Sustainability | Employees

The sky’s the limit
in public health

On his last visit to Africa, the logistics of the trip meant that Head of Global Health Marc Destito spent more time on planes than he did on the ground. We asked him how he copes with the constant travel, and what he misses most about home.

“I don't get fazed by things anymore,” says Marc Destito, Vice President and Head of Global Health at QIAGEN. “Like if I show up in a country and I haven't heard from the people I’m supposed to be meeting, or I have no idea where people are taking us. Once we were in Moldova and the guy in the lab pulled out a bottle and said, ‘Try my homemade wine before we talk business!’ These things just happen, and you’ve just got to roll with it.”

He sees his role as an essential part of building on QIAGEN’s commitment to increasing access to quality healthcare, and took up the position in July 2021, having worked in global health for around a decade before that. While travel restrictions were still in place at the time, since they’ve lifted he’s been travelling almost every week. “Not always to some far-off place, there’s been a lot of regional travel as well,” he says. On long-haul trips, however, he can easily be away for a couple of weeks at a time. “If it’s Asia or Africa, I try to build in as much as I can because of the cost and the planning involved. I usually try to get to at least two or three countries and visit as many people as I can, visit our local offices, our local team. I really try to pack a lot in.” 

It's helped immensely that his previous experience has taught him what to expect, he says. “When I travel with people who don't have a global health background, I see the stress on their face immediately – ‘What time’s the meeting? Who's setting up the meeting?’ And I say, ‘We'll see what happens – it'll all fall into place.’ The global health space is so different from everything else in business – it’s its own universe. Things change on a dime, appointments get canceled and sometimes you can't get an appointment at all.”

Traveling to various locations across the world is part of Marc’s role as Vice President and Head of Global Health. These trips are often grueling (in this case, traveling to Malawi took no less than 20 hours with 4 layovers – and that’s not including the various bus and cab rides). Marc has to prepare for the worst, as with any major trip, but he explains why the effort is always worthwhile. Especially when it comes to collaborations in combatting one of the deadliest diseases on the planet.

“The global health space is so different from everything else in business – it’s its own universe.”


Baptisms of fire

One particular baptism of fire in a previous job saw him have to organize a trip to India at 48 hours’ notice to present to a panel of leading clinicians. “We had a letter from the equivalent of the FDA requiring us to appear in person to appeal for the approval of our product. It was basically myself and the lead of the clinical trial, who was going to present this data. As I'm on my way to the airport I get a message that he was denied boarding because his passport didn't match the number on his visa application, so it’s ‘You need to go by yourself or the product's not going to be approved’.”

After a four-hour wait and a “brutal” meeting where the panel of doctors were firing heavily scientific questions at him, the local consultant told him, ‘That was great!’. “I said, ‘What are you talking about – were you at the same meeting?’ He said, ‘You don't understand, the guys before you were kicked out after five minutes’.” What’s more, the drug was approved. “It was one of the craziest experiences from a professional point of view,” he says.

Another hair-raising experience, for different reasons, was being frantically hustled into a vehicle in the Gugulethu township in Cape Town, where he was visiting TB patients. “We had security with us because they said it's not safe to go on your own. At some point we got separated from the vehicle, and the crowd started to get bigger and bigger until it was around 50 people. The security guy got really uncomfortable because he realized if something happened there was nothing he could do. He was saying, ‘We have to go’ and I was saying ‘I don’t want to offend these people.’ He just grabbed me, like one of those scenes in the movies where they're rushing the president into the car, and then the door to the van flies open and everybody gets pushed in. The atmosphere was definitely getting charged.” But that is part of the experience.

Marc Destito, Vice President Global Public Health

Marc Destito, based in Geneva, Switzerland, joined QIAGEN as Vice President and Head of Global Health in July 2021 focusing on infectious diseases, tuberculosis (TB) and women's health. In this role he leads QIAGEN’s Global Public Health Task Force, working to expand access and affordability to QIAGEN’s diagnostic solutions for low-resource settings and vulnerable populations. Previously, he helped lead the global TB program for Otsuka Pharmaceutical, focused on drug development for multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). He holds an advanced degree in Global Health Policy from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and in International Politics from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

“You can make a real impact on one person's life and by default, their neighborhood, their community, their region.”


What’s the worst that can happen?

However, it does pay to be structured about some things, he stresses. “My colleague who helps me with my travel booking knows I'm a stickler about airport pickups, because you don’t want to be fussing around unregistered taxis. I'm super picky about things like that, and getting to the airport on time. But then I also just live by the rule of what's the worst that can happen? If my flight gets canceled, there'll be another flight. If I can't leave today, I'll leave tomorrow.”

Always using the same backpack also helps, he says. “I keep things in the same pouches in the backpack, and they never go out of the pouch. So my passport I don't put in the drawer at home, it always stays in the same pouch so I know where it is.” The same applies to chargers, cables, adapters, as well as printed COVID forms as, “You never know when you're going to show up somewhere and they don't accept the QR.”

Planning for the worst, “I also have a full-blown medical kit with thermometer, painkillers, antibiotics, bandages, you name it.” He's never had any lost-luggage disasters because he only ever travels with carry-on baggage, no matter the duration of the trip. “I'd rather pay for laundry than risk it getting lost, especially when you've got seven flights.”

Child being examined by a doctor

One of Marc’s major focuses is work to tackle HPV across Africa, where tests are often completely out of reach for the vast majority of the population. “When you get down to the healthcare role, who are the people most often in charge? Men. And so when they have to make the decisions about what they’re going to prioritize they often don’t put the resources behind healthcare for women. It's a sad fact, and again it's part of healthcare equity. At QIAGEN we're very focused on access, but we're also focused on equity and on vulnerable populations – whether it's children, women, people living with HIV.”

“Things change on a dime, appointments get canceled and sometimes you can't get an appointment at all.”


What’s missed most

All of this, however, has perhaps inevitably played havoc with his sleep. “When I was younger, I could sleep anywhere, but as you get older it gets much harder, and I do need sleep to function.” It’s the thing he misses most on the road, he says. “I'm not one of these people who says, ‘I’ve got to exercise every day, I've got such a rigid routine.’ The thing I miss is just as basic as it sounds, being in my own bed.”

There are also challenges when it comes to food. “I put this under the same category as sleep in that as your body ages, certain things change. I used to have an iron-clad stomach which people would laugh about. Before I could eat street food, anything. In the Philippines I tried balut, which is literally a fermented duck embryo, in rural China I ate a fried scorpion. I still try to eat local food, but I won’t eat raw or undercooked foods overseas now, because it's not worth the risk.”

So has all of this travel taken its toll on him? “I’ve been doing a lot since I was in my twenties and there’s no question that you notice it starts to wear you down. It does require more mental stamina than before, and sometimes you really need to psyche yourself up for it – on the last trip to Africa I probably spent as much time on a plane as I did on the ground, just because of the logistics of getting to some of these places.” COVID has also made travel far more complicated and frustrating, even on short-haul trips. “I waited four hours to get through security in Dusseldorf airport recently – that can be as brutal as an eight-hour flight.”
Marc Destito with this partners and colleagues in Malawi lab
Colleagues and partners have been incredibly dedicated and focused, Marc points out. “I've been really inspired. There's not a big groundswell of global-level support for HPV, but there is a lot of strong country-level support, particularly in Rwanda. They want to become the first country in Africa to eliminate cervical cancer so there’s a little bit of momentum building. It’s an uphill battle, but I'm really proud that QIAGEN is continuing to fight the good fight on that one because it's the right thing to do.”

“I'm not one of these people who says, ‘I’ve got to exercise every day, I've got such a rigid routine.’ The thing I miss is just as basic as it sounds, being in my own bed.”


Personal connections

So why keep doing this? All of this is worth it in terms of the benefits that the travel brings, he says, by far the biggest of which is the ability to make personal connections in a way that wouldn’t be possible over email or Zoom. “People remember you. When you develop that personal connection with somebody, then you know you have someone you can rely on. If I have a problem I know who to go to – it just creates a whole other sense of openness.” 

One recent example was when he’d been trying for a long time to email contacts in the Philippines to start a conversation about TB infection testing. “I found that emails would just get lost in the ether, so thankfully when we got to the Philippines we were able to get a meeting. They said, ‘We know we need to do more TB infection testing, WHO’s telling us to do it, Stop TB’s telling us to do it, we’ve got money from Global Fund. The problem is that we've been focused on active TB and treatment and we don't know how to do it, we don't have the tools. And I thought, ‘Wow, we're having a really frank discussion with this person who wants to create this collaboration.’ How do you do that over email?”

On the subject of TB, a major surveillance project is now underway in Malawi that’s set to focus on 10,000 children. “It's a large number and a segment that's so vulnerable and so often forgotten. For years many people in the TB community didn’t want to focus on children, particularly under-fives, because children are less likely to spread TB bacteria to others so they're just completely overlooked. But for me it goes to the very heart of this health equity argument and access to healthcare – everybody has the right to quality healthcare, whether you're one year old or 100 years old. So how can we just completely ignore this group?”

People in the meeting
Marc’s decade of experience in traveling for business has paid off when it comes to packing, which he has down to a fine art. “I have a formula, which is that I have one drawer at home that's just the travel drawer, because I figured out that having to repack a bag every time means you're inevitably going to forget stuff. So everything I would normally take I have a duplicate of that’s just for traveling – razors, shaving cream, toothpaste, toothbrushes. So when I go to pack I just open up the travel drawer and everything's right there.”

“I have one drawer at home that's just the travel drawer, because I figured out that having to repack a bag every time means you're inevitably going to forget stuff.”

Advice to succeed in the role

So what would he say to someone considering a similar role – one that involved this level of travel and, at times, endurance? “Well, one thing is you have to have a personal passion for it, you need to be personally invested. To psyche yourself up to go on a long trip that's going to be very uncomfortable you've got to have that purpose, otherwise it's too exhausting – it takes way too much mental and physical energy.” Another vital thing is “not getting overwhelmed”, he says. “I gave up trying to change the world a long time ago.” 

“The WHO TB report came out recently and for the first time in more than a decade the numbers are going up. We have new drugs, new diagnostics, more funding than ever before, so how can the numbers be going up? Well guess what, we had a pandemic and now a war. So even when you make progress, all of that can get unraveled because of geopolitical events. I don't expect we're ever going to solve the TB crisis in my lifetime, and I'm not thinking in those terms. I'm thinking in terms of how can I impact one person's life. I’m thinking about pediatric TB patients who want to be doctors or recently, a person I met from Ukraine who’s crying she was so overwhelmed by the generosity of our product donation. 

“Someone at Médecins Sans Frontières once said to me, ‘Please thank your colleagues because there are so many patients out there who owe them a debt of gratitude even if they don't know who they are.’ Maybe we're not going to end TB and maybe we're not going reach every person out there who should be reached, but you can make a real impact on one person's life and, by default, their neighborhood, their community, their region, and the ripple starts to get bigger and bigger. That’s kind of how I see it. And so I set my expectations and I try to work within those parameters. And that's what keeps me going.” 

Marc Destito being interviewed
Some of Marc’s first big trips had been with journalists, which helped to give him a solid grounding, he says. “When you travel with veteran journalists who’ve reported from war zones you get a totally different perspective. In one case in the Philippines, the cameraman was literally hanging out the back of this jeep, holding the camera with one hand and the jeep with the other, half suspended over the road, filming the car behind us. I was sweating bullets, saying, ‘We're gonna hit a car’ and the other journalist was just sitting there cool as a cucumber. When I asked how she was so relaxed she said, ‘This is just what it's like!’”


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