This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on April 10, 2020 at 2:10 p.m.
Subject: Campus Update and Extension of Closure
Greetings. I’m writing in follow up to my last note of March 24 to give you an update of current activities on campus, the impact of COVID-19 on the Rockefeller community and NYC, and the current thinking about future steps.
First, I hope this note finds you and your families healthy and safe and coping well with these challenging days. It has been painful to see the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on NYC, the nation and the world. All our hearts go out to patients who are ill, to the health care workers and first responders who are working heroically to save lives under harrowing circumstances, and the workers who are performing essential services across our communities.
At Rockefeller, our first priority remains the safety and well-being of our community, which comprises over 2,000 who are employed by the University and all of our family members. As you know, the campus was largely shut down on March 18 to reduce everyone’s risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Nonetheless, there are essential functions that must be maintained, including campus security, the power plant, and housing. There are also essential employees who care for our research animals and who sustain critical clinical investigations in the Rockefeller Hospital. There are more than 250 people who maintain these essential services, and we are profoundly grateful to them for their remarkable dedication and efforts.
Health of our Community
Speaking of remarkable dedication and effort, throughout this public health crisis, our Office of Occupational Health Services (OHS), led by Ashley Foo, with Ann Campbell, Margaret Breed, Lisa Tsatsas, and Iris Taylor, along with Head of Lab Tom Sakmar serving as medical director, has done a remarkable job serving our community, delivering thermometers, providing wise advice and direction, and carefully monitoring those who are ill. Additionally, Vice President for Human Resources Virginia Huffman has set up telemedicine, enabling those in need to speak directly to physicians online without having to go out to doctor’s offices. Nonetheless, in the event of a medical emergency, you should still call 911.
In particular, OHS has closely followed the health of the essential employees who need to be on campus every day. They have ensured that those who become ill do not come on campus and quarantine at home, and they follow up daily with these individuals to see how they’re doing. They also have identified close contacts of those suspected of having COVID-19 and have asked them to self-quarantine. These tremendous efforts—closely following nearly 150 people thus far, each with daily follow up from a health care provider—have prevented the spread of infection through our community.
To date there are three people among the Rockefeller community who have tested positive, and two of these are fully recovered while the third is doing well at home. Another 27 individuals currently have symptoms and clinical courses that strongly suggest infection with the SARS-CoV-2. Thus far no member of our community has required hospitalization due to this virus, and all those with current symptoms are improving. Critical to our ability to prevent spread of the virus has been everyone’s strict adherence to social distancing, frequent hand-washing, following the governor’s instructions not to go out if ill, remaining isolated from other members of your household if you are ill, and using public transportation only if urgent and necessary. As an additional tool, we were fortunate to recently obtain rapid on-site testing capability, which has been very helpful in assessing whether essential employees’ symptoms are due to SARS-CoV-2 and whether contacts need to be quarantined.
Regarding University finances, I want to reassure you that while the economic chaos resulting from the pandemic has been significant, our investment office continues to do an exemplary job, and our finance office has done great work managing these turbulent times. This cannot, however, fully mitigate some of the challenges we will likely face in the coming months.
As you are aware, many of the microbiologists, immunologists, biochemists, molecular biologists and drug hunters at Rockefeller have quickly pivoted to focus their research programs on COVID-19. This is the only current laboratory research activity on campus and includes small numbers of people (to maintain careful social distancing on campus and in the lab) from nearly 20 laboratories, along with support from our resource centers. We should all be very proud of the terrific response from our laboratories to impact this pandemic.
In this note, I will highlight one of these projects, the identification and development of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies for prevention and treatment of SARS-CoV-2. Several years ago, our colleague Michel Nussenzweig developed a method for purifying the ‘B cells’ from people that are producing antibodies directed to a specific protein of interest. He could then clone out the antibody-producing genes from these cells, allowing him to go on to produce these antibodies in large quantities. With hundreds of these antibodies, he could pick those that are best at neutralization of a virus, that is, preventing the virus from infecting cells. In one example, he showed that a combination of two different antibodies directed against the HIV virus can prevent and control HIV infection. He is now repeating this protocol for SARS-CoV-2. A key element of this project is the assessment of how well each antibody prevents viral infection of cells in a petri dish. Our colleagues Paul Bieniasz and Theodora Hatziioannou have developed a clever method of doing this that puts just the envelope of the SARS-CoV-2 virus around a different viral genome into which they’ve inserted a ‘reporter gene’. In the absence of a neutralizing antibody to SARS-CoV-2, the virus enters the cells and the inserted gene makes a protein whose level is easily measured. In the presence of a good neutralizing antibody, the virus never gets into cells and there is no signal from the inserted gene. Paul and Theodora have made this a rapid, robust and safe assay that does not require use of a pathogenic virus. Another key element of this project is the recruitment of patients who recently recovered from COVID-19 and collection of a small amount of blood from them for purification of B cells that are making antibodies to the viral coat spike protein. I am delighted to report that the first patient eligible for the study gave blood at the Rockefeller Hospital last week, and by the end of this week there will already be nearly 50 recovered patients who have given a blood sample for this study. Congratulations and thanks to the terrific teams at the Hospital who have recruited these patients and collected their blood samples for study. The goal of this project is to screen through hundreds of antibodies made by patients who recovered from infection and move those that best combat the virus into clinical trials.
There are many other projects ongoing at Rockefeller that bear on the biology, the diagnosis of current and past infection, and the discovery of new ways to prevent and treat COVID-19, and I look forward to discussing more of these with you in the future. I want to express my gratitude to all of the scientists who are working to blunt the impact of the pandemic, now and in the future. Given the devastation we have witnessed over the last few weeks, we all should take great pride in these efforts.
During this challenging time, it is critical that we all continue to pay close attention to sustaining our various communities. To maintain our connections to our trustees, we held a Zoom meeting with them this week to provide them with an overview of the rapidly changing course of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the outstanding questions that will dictate its outcome, and some of our research programs. I’m pleased to tell you that virtually all of our trustees were in attendance; they remain exceptionally supportive of all our efforts. You can find a video of the presentation here.
Despite the campus being quiet, there’s much going on at Rockefeller. Jeanne Garbarino and the RockEDU program have cleverly developed digital educational materials and activities that bring science to life by focusing on the immediacy of the biology of COVID-19. This includes the launch of a new online educational resource on viruses and a public-facing journal club series done in collaboration with Tri-Institutional scientists. RockEDU is also maintaining the LAB Jumpstart after school program via Zoom videoconferencing. Similarly, our graduate school courses quickly moved to virtual presentations and discussions. The dedicated teachers in the CFC are putting on wonderful programs for their students. And Human Resources has an amazing lineup of virtual programs that are announced every Tuesday through the RU Connected email. These programs present our existing on-campus wellness programs with the same terrific in-house instructors and providers that you already know. These include live meditation, yoga, gym classes, physical therapy. Additionally, our on-site mental health provider, a Cornell psychiatrist, continues to have virtual visits with members of the RU community.
In support of our mission of the dissemination of science, I am happy to report that the Rockefeller University Press (RUP) remains fully operational and is actively responding to the COVID-19 crisis. The Journal of Experimental Medicine has already published a Viewpoint feature and expedited the peer review of research manuscripts on COVID-19, and made all RUP articles published on COVID-19 immediately accessible online.
A particular shout-out goes to the Information Technology Department, which is managing an incredible surge in remote usage, Zoom videoconferences, questions, and requests. They have done an amazing job of managing the exceptional workload.
In addition to these efforts, I’m pleased to report some of the many volunteer efforts that our staff and trainees have initiated to help our community. For example, our laboratories and staff members responded very generously when front-line health care workers were dangerously low on personal protective equipment. We have collected large numbers of unused gloves, gowns, surgical masks and N95 masks from our laboratories and provided them to our neighbors next door at New York Presbyterian Hospital and across the street at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Note that the donation tables are still open in the lobby of Founders Hall! In another effort, talented staff in our fabrication facility have made more than 3,000 face shields that have been donated to health care workers. And graduate students and postdocs have volunteered to get food and run errands for those who need help, and have also pitched in with work in laboratories when extra effort has been needed. It has been moving and gratifying to see everyone’s commitment to our local and larger communities.
The Pandemic in NYC and Plans Going Forward
Regarding COVID-19, I’m sure you are all aware that New York City remains the epicenter of the pandemic. The number of people affected and the loss of life in the city is a terrible tragedy, and we respect the sacrifices of those we have lost by doing our very best to prevent the spread of infection. You may have seen reports in the last several days that the growth in the number of cases has slowed, which provides evidence that staying at home and practicing strict social distancing is beginning to have impact. Nonetheless, we are presently at a peak in the number of active cases, so we clearly have a long way to go to get back to normalcy.
To this end, Governor Cuomo recently announced a two-week extension of his executive order for schools and businesses to remain on pause, with continued requirements for rigorous social distancing. These provisions are now extended through April 29. How successfully we bring down the number of infections in the city is collectively in our hands, and I urge you to do everything you can to prevent the spread of infection.
In accordance with the governor’s order, the current closure status of Rockefeller University will remain in effect at least through April 29. Essential services will continue unchanged from current status, and on-campus laboratory research will continue under the current regulations. I wish I had a crystal ball to see how the pandemic will evolve in the coming weeks; most importantly, we must continue to do all we can to prevent spread of the virus. Getting the numbers low enough to control spread by traditional methods of widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation of infected people will be our best protection until there are effective vaccines or other ways to prevent or treat infections.
In closing, while this has been a very challenging period for the University, the city and the nation, what has been most clear to me over the last few weeks is the extraordinary generosity of our campus community and of our many supporters and benefactors. I take great pride in the spirit of our community. Thank you for your many contributions to this effort.
I know we will get through these challenging times, and I urge everyone to do your part to prevent the spread of infection and be as supportive as possible of friends, families and strangers in need. I look forward to better days ahead when we can all be together on campus again.
Sending best wishes for continued good health for you and your loved ones,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University