Continuing the Discussion: Q&A on antimicrobial resistance and future pandemics with Dr. Muhammad Zaman

Embriette Hyde

What can the history of antimicrobial resistance tell us about future pandemics? If you caught our first Distinguished Scientist Lecture by Dr. Muhammad Zaman on March 2, 2020, you may already know some of these answers. If you missed the live event, you can watch the replay here. In this blog post, we capture the eight key takeaways from Dr. Zaman’s lecture and his answers to questions that were not answered during the live event due to time constraints.

Inaugurating Riffyn’s Distinguished Lecture Series

The Distinguished Scientist Lecture Series, co-hosted with Merck, aims to highlight individuals in distinguished roles that come from diverse backgrounds, social roots, and cultural perspectives to inspire and educate our team and our community. The series was inspired by Riffyn’s commitment to honor diversity and racial justice.

We were honored to have Dr. Muhammad Zaman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and International Health at Boston University, as our inaugural speaker. An expert on how microbes have influenced cultures and societies, Dr. Zaman is also the author of the acclaimed book “Biography of Resistance.”

We also invited students in the Biomanufacturing Program at Laney College, a two-year community college in Riffyn’s hometown of Oakland, to not only attend the lecture seminar but to be paired with a mentor from Merck or Riffyn. Over twenty Laney College staff and students registered for the event, and of those, 10 students signed up to be paired with a mentor at Riffyn or Merck. Fifteen scientists from both companies enthusiastically volunteered to mentor a student.

Dr. Zaman’s 8 key takeaways

After a brief intro by Riffyn Founder and CEO Tim Gardner and VP of Infectious Diseases Discovery at Merck and CSO of the MRL Cambridge Exploratory Science Center Dr. Daria Hazuda, Dr. Zaman began his talk. He immediately reassured his audience of nearly 400 people — close to 200 of which were members of the general public — that “I’m not going to give yet another talk about an infectious disease that can make a tremendous impact on the world.”

Instead, Dr. Zaman explained how we can take lessons from the past to learn how we can do things to avoid the next disastrous infectious disease. He outlined 7 particularly useful lessons we should consider as we plan for the next pandemic — and how to avoid it:

1) bacteria and viruses can collaborate to pack a nasty punch

2) there were plenty of early troubling signs

3) the story of discovery is biased, inaccurate, and incomplete

4) we need a nuanced approach to understand antimicrobial resistance

5) politics and conflict drive antimicrobial resistance, regionally and globally

6) being U.S. and Euro-centric is wrong for a whole host of reasons

7) the pipeline does not inspire confidence, and, finally,

8) there is hope.

After concluding his talk, Dr. Zaman answered questions submitted via Twitter from the audience. There were many exceptional questions, which led to an informative and vibrant discussion. But for the ones we didn’t get to during the event, we reached out to Dr. Zaman and he was kind enough to provide answers.

Note that answers have been edited for clarity.

The questions we didn’t get to

Question: What’s the biggest problem of them all? Lack of innovation, lack of incentive, government non-intervention, or public non-cooperation?

Answer: It's hard to say which one is the biggest – I think all are critical and we need a solution for all of them. That is the key point, in my opinion, to not focus on just one but develop a strategy that addresses several of them together, and for that, we need a suite of multi-disciplinary approaches.

Question: In your opinion, what are the emerging technologies that could address microbial infections while bypassing AMR?

Answer: I think it is not one technology, but rather multiple technologies that are needed and can make a major difference. This includes phage therapy and vaccinations as well as point-of-care tests to analyze whether the infection is of bacterial or viral origin. None of these will address the problem individually, but collectively, combined with more robust stewardship campaigns, can really make a difference.

Question: Will industrial farming be able to maintain the same outputs if antibiotic use is reduced in agricultural feed?

Answer: Absolutely – there is already early evidence that the benefit of antibiotic use for animal farming is providing marginal, or even in some cases, negligible, returns.

Question: Given the history and challenges of diverse voices in science, how do we amplify the best, not loudest, voices?

Answer: This is a great question and one that merits reflection on our own biases. Who do we listen to? Whose voice do we trust? I think we will find that it’s not always others who listen to the loudest voices; we do the same as well. This should happen at both local (in our communities) and global (at the state, national, and international) level. We have to push back against the culture of celebrity voices in science and health, [and] instead focus on substance, nuance, and insight.

If you want to be notified about future Distinguished Scientist Lecture events, you can send us a message at or follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter. We invite you to keep the conversation going on social media using the hashtag #RiffynEvents