Case #1895.0

Keeping an Open Mind in an Emergency: CDC experiments with 'Team B'

Publication Date: November 20, 2008
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The CDC's chief response in a public health emergency was to undertake a high-speed scientific investigation--combining epidemiological, clinical, and laboratory data--in order to identify, then come up with strategies to prevent, contain, and cure the ailment in question. The agency's traditional approach was to look at the evidence and seek the likeliest explanation based on past emergencies, and this approach had permitted the CDC to provide useful information at high speed. But the approach did not work so well when the agency was faced by something novel and increasingly, the CDC was, in fact, faced by something novel. New, resurgent, and drug-resistant pathogens were on the rise and the 2001 anthrax attacks demonstrated the threat posed by malicious release of deadly or weaponized pathogens. In late 2001, in response to the question, "how can the CDC continue to move fast, pursuing the likeliest explanation for a disease outbreak, but still remain open to the possibility of a more unusual explanation?", some top-level CDC strategists began to consider adding a new feature, called "Team B," to emergency investigations, at least in the case of large or unusual incidents. Team B would be made up of people with expertise in the topic at hand, but with no significant responsibilities in the investigation itself. This group would convene regularly, over the course of the emergency investigation, to review the latest developments in the outbreak, and to ask themselves whether there were alternative interpretations of the data, or concurrent developments, that the principal investigating team had either missed or too readily dismissed.

Learning Objective:
This strategic management case describes one of the efforts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the early 2000s to adapt its emergency protocols to cope with the growing complexity of public health emergencies.

Other Details

Case Author:
Pamela Varley
Faculty Lead:
Herman (Dutch) B. Leonard and Arnold Howitt
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States
Funding Source:
Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative