Robert H. Levi Symposium and Public Event on Containment

Containment: Exploring the History, Politics, and Ethics of Infectious Disease Response in a Post-Genomic World

March 11-12, 2019

What does it mean to contain a disease? Who or what do we seek to contain along with it? The concept of containment is inherently political and is tied to practices of surveillance, quarantine, and treatment which vary over time and between cultures. This symposium brings together leading social scientists and cultural scholars with ethicists, medical researchers, and practitioners, to explore the shifting politics of containment from the nineteenth century through the Cold War to the present, to inform best practices for infectious disease preparedness and response from the local to the global scale. In particular, this symposium seeks to determine what new questions emerge from the intersection of infectious disease and genomics research, while also paying attention to historical continuities.

Two examples illustrate the ethical and social issues that surround work on the containment of infectious disease today. In the sphere of human genomics, research into genetic factors that affect one’s susceptibility to infectious diseases raises new questions about how to balance individual rights and public health in infectious disease response. How can information about genetic susceptibility and resistance to infectious disease be used responsibly? In the geopolitical sphere, countries have asserted “viral” or “genomic” sovereignty, a right to withhold biological samples or genomic data from the international community, posing challenges to global regulatory mechanisms for surveilling and containing infectious disease. Such assertions must be read in the context of a political economy in which actors seek to capitalize on biological information, and geopolitical conditions such as the Cold War or the War on Terror, whereby public health is framed as a national security concern.

These examples demonstrate the pressing need for wider discussion and more research on the cultural and structural dimensions of containment practices in order to inform ethical approaches to infectious disease preparedness and response. The symposium will seek to draw connections between different scales of action, from patient interactions with on-the-ground operations in emergency settings to the interface between national and international health organizations.

The meeting will set a research and policy agenda around the ethical, legal, and social dimensions of containment, infectious diseases and genomics. Following the symposium, the organizers will:

  1. Produce a review of the workshop proceedings with recommendations for future directions.
  2. Seek to place participants’ contributions in a special issue of a peer-reviewed publication.
  3. Explore the feasibility of establishing a sustainable international network that brings together humanities, ethics and science scholars with policy makers and practitioners.


  • Center for Medical Humanities & Social Medicine
  • Biocontainment Unit
  • Alliance for a Healthier World