ROME, Italy — An eclectic mix of participants are taking part in a unique three-day Vatican conference on COVID-19, other global health threats and how science, solidarity and spirituality can address them.
Along with Pope Francis, the event includes Dr. Anthony Fauci, soprano Renee Fleming, the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna and the lead guitarist of Aerosmith.
The conference, which begins Thursday and ends Saturday with a virtual audience with the pope, was planned well before the pandemic erupted last year. Organizers say it has only taken on more relevance amid a growing appreciation of the need for global access to health care, new advances in vaccine technology and greater understanding of the mental health cost of loneliness.
Fauci, who is leading the U.S. pandemic response, told the online conference in recorded remarks Thursday that the pandemic had confirmed to him that faith and science are constantly evolving — and that scientists in particular must humbly admit they don’t have all the answers all the time.
One answer Fauci said he did have was that the key to overcoming current vaccine hesitancy is pairing the right medical message with the right messenger.
“You have someone who’s a deeply religious person who will listen to their clergy. That’s different than me with a suit going into an area telling people to do something,” he said.
He was referring to the religiously inspired resistance to taking COVID-19 vaccines that were indirectly developed using lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses. The Vatican has declared that all COVID-19 vaccines are not only morally licit, but that people have a moral responsibility to get the jabs to protect others.
Fauci is opening the multidisciplinary conference, which was originally scheduled to take place at the Vatican in May 2020 but was postponed a year and eventually put online due to the pandemic.
The virtual format, though, has allowed for an even greater variety of participants.
A Harvard neuroscientist is leading a conversation about brain health and rock stars with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Soprano Fleming is participating in a panel discussion on the role of music in treating cardiac patients. Supermodel Cindy Crawford has a slot to talk about “beauty from the inside out,” and Chelsea Clinton is teaming up with an Italian public health official to promote equal access to health care.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel is speaking about the mRNA technology behind Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine, while his counterpart at Pfizer, Albert Bourla, is heading up a discussion on preparedness for future global health crises.
The conference, which features prominent U.S. journalists as moderators and academics in a variety of fields, also has a religious component. Rabbis, cardinals, imams and representatives of Christian denominations are discussing the role of religion and spirituality in health.
It’s the fifth time the Vatican’s culture ministry has teamed up with the Cura Foundation to mount a conference that aims to pair advances in science and technology with ideas about how to deliver them effectively, efficiently and at a lower cost.
“People are very focused on the pandemic. It’s changed our lives in many, many ways. But there are also other areas of our health that are impacted,” said Dr. Robin Smith, founder and president of the Cura Foundation.
The aim of the conference, she said, is to put aside political, religious and ideological differences and focus on improving health care around the globe.
“We really want to sort of check all that at the door and say, ‘How can you make a difference? How can we help?'"