Chien-Jen Chen, ScD ‘83
Renowned epidemiologist Chien-Jen Chen, an alumnus of the Bloomberg School who is credited with suppressing the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in his island nation, will take office in May as vice president of Taiwan, Republic of China. Chen is the first JHSPH alum to assume the vice presidency of a nation.
Chen was nominated in the fall by Tsai Ing-Wen, soon-to-be Taiwan’s first female president; and the pair was elected in January 2016. A political outsider, Chen reluctantly resigned from his post as vice president of Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s equivalent of the National Academies of Science. “I told the people in my laboratory that, for the coming years, it’s more important that I serve the people,” he said in an interview with Nature, referring to sacrificing his research in order to prioritize improving Taiwan’s social and economic situation.
Chen studied with Professor Bernice Cohen, a pioneering genetic epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. Cohen’s close collaborator, P.C. Huang, a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who taught Chen, said, “He’s a very decent person. With all the political turmoil in Taiwan, he’s the one people trust.” In pre-election polls, Chen received approval ratings of 78 percent. He was a good choice in a hotly contested election, Huang observed, because “his victory was not based on his party background. He can speak to all sides.” Chen’s popularity stems from his sound leadership of Academia Sinica and, most notably, his heroic efforts containing SARS.
After serving as dean of the College of Public Health of the National Taiwan University from 1999 to 2002, Chen was appointed Minister of Health in 2003, just as SARS was inciting panic across East Asia. Taiwan’s epidemic escalated even as other countries were bringing SARS under control. Since the United Nations recognizes China’s claim that Taiwan is not independent of the mainland, Taiwan does not have an independent seat at meetings of the World Health Organization and so had been excluded from international discussions and sample sharing. Despite the lack of cooperation from the Chinese government, Chen rapidly mounted containment efforts across the island and ensured that SARS patients were isolated to prevent the infection’s spread in hospitals.
One key initiative to control SARS had its origins at the Bloomberg School. A group of Taiwanese students who wanted to be involved in anti-SARS efforts approached Huang. He suggested a task force to research the disease’s symptoms and early detection methods. Huang challenged the task force to consider the unique strengths of Taiwan’s health care system that could be used to help control the epidemic. Since the first sign of infection was a fever, the students proposed that the reserve force of paid health officers establish voluntary temperature checkpoints in apartment buildings, public transportation terminals and shopping malls. Huang shared the plan with the leadership of Academic Sinica, and it was promptly endorsed and implemented by Chen and anti-SARS chief Ming-Liang Lee (a Hopkins Medicine alumna). The preventive protocol lasted for several weeks and achieved an 82-percent participation rate among Taiwan’s populace. Wui-Chiang Lee, PhD ’04, leader of the student SARS control team, is currently director of the Department of Medical Affairs in the Taiwan Ministry of Health and Welfare, as well as director general of the Bureau of Medical Affairs at the International Society for Quality in Health Care.
Chen’s SARS work was predated by his acclaimed environmental epidemiology research on arsenic in drinking water. Published in 1992, it led to lowering the international health minimum standards for exposure.
In 2006, Chen published findings from a cohort study of chronic hepatitis B patients (REVEAL Study) in the Journal of the American Medical Association that led to new hepatitis treatment guidelines. The findings were further validated in another research study on 1.7 million women, conducted with Epidemiology faculty member Kenrad E. Nelson and Taiwanese colleagues. Chen also published the first paper to document that hepatocellular carcinoma can be prevented by vaccination against the hepatitis B virus in the New England Journal of Medicine. This finding led to a new era of vaccination against cervical cancer and new clinical guidelines for the management of chronic hepatitis B.
In 2012, Chen received the Johns Hopkins Knowledge for the World Award, which credited his work on arsenic and hepatitis with saving millions of lives worldwide. While Chen was in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins students from the Bloomberg School and other divisions organized a colloquium in his honor that attracted a large audience on the Homewood campus.
Chen is among 864 Johns Hopkins University graduates from Taiwan; the largest number, 336, are from JHSPH. Chen and three other JHSPH graduates have led Taiwan’s health ministry, and another Minister of Health trained with faculty from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
As vice president, Chen is committed to revitalizing Taiwan’s stagnant economy. To reinvigorate the business sector, Chen plans to establish a competitive research system that encourages more risk-taking. “Now the government doesn’t allow failure, so everyone goes for ‘me-too’ modifications, not innovation,” he told Nature. While serving as vice president of Academia Sinica, Chen had been involved in building a biotechnology center to support the industry in Taiwan. As a public servant, he will continue to emphasize scientific research in fields such as biopharmaceuticals as a key to economic growth.
Applicants to the Bloomberg School MPH program are drawing inspiration from Chen, notes Huang, who serves on the MPH admissions committee, Recent essays have cited Chen among the reasons that prospective students decided to pursue a JHSPH degree.