Jong Wook Lee, a 57-year-old South Korean physician who heads the World Health Organization's tuberculosis control program, yesterday won nomination to be the next leader of the organization in a hard-fought election that took seven ballots.
Lee will succeed Gro Harlem Brundtland, a physician and former prime minister of Norway, who announced in August she would not seek a second five-year term as WHO's director general. The runner-up yesterday was Peter Piot, the Belgian physician who heads UNAIDS, the joint AIDS program run by the United Nations and the World Bank.
WHO has taken an increasingly important role on the global political stage in the last decade with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic and a growing realization that good health is a crucial engine for economic development in poor countries. With a reformer's zeal and political contacts in many capitals, Brundtland gave the director general's job a considerably higher profile than her predecessors.
Lee apparently emerged as a compromise candidate as the organization's 32-member executive board, meeting at its Geneva headquarters, pared down the field of five candidates. His name will be presented for ratification in May to WHO's governing body -- the health ministers of all UN member nations. A 19-year veteran of the organization, Lee headed the global program for vaccines and immunization from 1994 to 1998. He served as an adviser to Brundtland and was assigned to improve communications with WHO's six regions before taking charge of the Stop TB program in 2000.
People inside and outside yesterday praised him as a builder of partnerships and consensus who sets high standards for those under him.
"Whatever his ego may be, it is under control of a greater commitment to do the right thing and to share the credit with everyone who makes things happen. In a bureaucracy, that is tremendously unusual," said Barry R. Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.
"He is a diplomat, not an in-your-face type of person," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economist who heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University. "He is a tremendous pragmatist, very results-oriented."
As head of the tuberculosis program, Lee helped put into wider practice proven life-saving treatments for a disease that kills about 1.6 million people a year. These include directly observed treatment, in which a health worker watches each patient take medication daily for six months, and a more complicated regimen for multidrug-resistant strains of the disease.
Lee oversaw the creation of a 250-member anti-TB partnership, which included government health departments in highly affected countries, WHO's regional offices, nongovernmental charitable organizations, donor agencies from industrialized countries, and pharmaceutical companies.
When he headed the vaccine program, Lee engaged drug companies in discussions of what incentives they would need to work on developing vaccines for diseases that mainly afflict the developing world. Until then, appeals to drug manufacturers had almost exclusively consisted of requests to donate their products or sell them at cost.
"He is a very good manager and administrator, very skillful at seeking and building consensus," said Nils Daulaire, the head of the Global Health Council, a lobbying organization for international health issues. "The challenge he is going to have is building on [Brundtland's] legacy of keeping health issues on the international policy agenda."
In a brief interview, Lee said that working toward the Millennium Development Goals the United Nations promulgated in 2000 "will be the overarching goal during my time."
Those targets include reducing the proportion of the world's population that lives on $1 a day or less to 15 percent by 2015 -- compared with 30 percent in 1990 -- and halving the rate of childhood malnutrition.
In the first round of balloting the United States supported Julio Frenk, a physician and health economist who previously served as head of health systems research in Brundtland's cabinet and is now the health minister of Mexico. Frenk lost in an early round, observers said, apparently because some countries resented the low rankings they received in a 2000 WHO report Frenk oversaw that rated each country's health system. The United States then switched its support to Lee.
After each round of the secret balloting, the bottom vote-getter was eliminated. Lee and Piot eventually tied on two successive ballots. In the seventh round, one country -- reportedly Britain -- switched its support from Piot to Lee, who won 17 to 15.
In his position as head of UNAIDS, the better-known Piot has been a tireless and impassioned advocate for greater attention and money for AIDS. Several close observers of the process speculated that the United States preferred a lower-profile candidate to be head of WHO.