'Mosquitoes know no borders'

Dr. Sanford Kuvin, founder of HU's Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, believes that health and science are the 'best prescription for peace in the Middle East.'

Asprin heart 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Asprin heart 521
(photo credit: MCT)
In a candid conversation in his spacious Jerusalem apartment overlooking the Old City, where he has spent time annually with his wife and family for the past 40 years, Dr. Sanford Kuvin speaks passionately about his true loves. And he has many.
Dr. Kuvin is founder of the Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, which is part of the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada in the Faculty of Medicine. He is also chairman of its International Board.
Beyond his beautiful wife of 51 years and his children and 10 grandchildren, “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is closest to my heart,” he says.
“I’m in love with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because it represents the best of the Jewish people – which is tikkun olam [fixing the world], sharing knowledge – all the good things you can imagine with a neshama [soul],” he smiles.
Other loves are the Kuvin Center, founded in 1980, and Israel itself – “the best country in the world,” where he lauds his “good friends,” as well as the “good music and good food.”
The trim and obviously fit Kuvin moves with a leonine grace that defies his 81 years. He describes the Kuvin Center as the “main address for molecular biology in infectious tropical diseases in the region for the past four decades. The center has achieved international excellence, received awards for scientific excellence and is the Hebrew University’s flagship of international cooperation, with more collaborative programs with the surrounding Arab states than anyone else in the region” including with the Palestinian Authority and countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon, with which Israel does not have relations. Publishing extensively in the professional literature, it has graduated Palestinian MSc and PhD candidates.
Despite the current social and political climate, Kuvin says his optimism about Israel is intact: “I always believe this is just a snapshot we’re living through, it’s the blink of an eye in the context of the past, present and the future – and this snapshot or blink is in Israel’s favor. When the dust settles after the Arab Spring, I feel optimistic we will reestablish ourselves. During the intifadas and the wars with Lebanon we at the Kuvin Center didn’t drop a beat with any of our collaborative projects.”
He notes the Palestinian scientists working at the center.
“I ask them, ‘what are you doing working at an Israeli institution?’ and they say, ‘I want to make life better for our people.’ Health and science are the best prescription for peace in the Middle East,” says the man who coined the phrase “mosquitoes know no borders.”
“When you get scientists together with a common goal, they forget about everything else. First science and health for all, then regional cooperation,” he declares.
Kuvin tells extraordinary stories of cooperation in public health and diplomacy. In his 30s, he was the first to demonstrate the use of the indirect fluorescent antibody test for malaria – a discovery that took him around the world. He traveled to Egypt, calling in at an American naval medical research facility. His visit to Cairo was followed by his first visit to Jerusalem, where he was “immediately smitten with Zionism.”
In the 1980s and ’90s he was instrumental in establishing the first regional cooperative health program ever between Israel and Egypt. The 10-year, $10 million Vector-Borne Disease program became a paradigm for successful regional cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Through Kuvin’s many efforts, which include lobbying of Congress and involvement with National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Kuvin Center has received much US support, in particular government aid through the USAID program, and was the first Israeli recipient of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It received a $5m. grant for research into visceral leishmaniasis in Ethiopia in 2009.
In a typical Kuvin sound bite, the doctor quips that he spent his whole career focused on diseases of the poor, while making his living from diseases of the rich. Apart from his distinguished academic record, he was in private practice in Palm Beach, Florida, for 22 years. The moment he traded his lab coat for the black bag of the personal physician, he also turned philanthropist.
With infectious diseases like malaria killing millions, Kuvin was convinced that Hebrew University needed an infectious diseases department. To raise the necessary capital, he founded the first Palm Beach chapter of the American Friends of Hebrew University. He proved so adept at fund-raising that then- Hebrew University president Abe Harman, whom he refers to as his “mentor,” beseeched him to cease and desist, saying he was drawing funds away from other projects.
Admitting that he sees the Kuvin Center as the jewel in the university’s crown, Kuvin is concerned that it is underutilized as a fund-raising asset. In a play on the historic JFK quote he challenges the development arm of the Hebrew University, saying: “Ask not what you can do for the Kuvin Center, ask what the Kuvin Center can do for you.”
Pondering the future, Kuvin proudly mentions his grandson, Jeremy Schreier, who this summer continued the family tradition of hands-on involvement. Despite arriving at the Kuvin Center as a high-school graduate with no prior lab experience and only a basic knowledge of biology, weeks later he produced work that Ron Dzikowski, PhD, a researcher in microbiology and molecular genetics at the Center, describes as “crucial to our success and [that] contributed very significantly to the progress of this project.”
An associate governor of the Hebrew University, member of the Council of Trustees of the American Friends and a previous visiting professor at the Faculty of Medicine, it is Kuvin’s fervent hope that the center that bears his name will continue to collaborate with neighboring countries and further enhance the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Glancing at his clarinet and flute, propped together in a corner of the room, he concludes, “We’re a player in the orchestra conducted by Hebrew U.”