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This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on December 4, 2020 at 11:51 a.m.
Subject: Update from the President

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Dear colleagues,

I hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving and found ways to safely celebrate. Many thanks to Ginny Huffman, Liz Neumark, and their respective colleagues in Human Resources and Great Performances who put together a spectacular take-out dinner for many of the people on campus on Thanksgiving. Despite the challenges this year, we all have much to be thankful for.

The last two weeks have seen an ominous rise in cases in NYC, with daily cases increasing to more than 3,300 and the percent of positive tests increasing from 2.8% to 4.0%. This occurs as the pandemic rages across the U.S., with an added bump in new cases over the few days following Thanksgiving travel, hitting a staggering 218,000 new cases yesterday, with nearly 14% positive tests. The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 nationally now exceeds 100,000, an all-time high. While NYC is fortunate to have among the lowest infection rates in the country, we are at high risk of sliding toward levels seen elsewhere that could replicate what we experienced last spring.

Rockefeller is not immune from this increase in case numbers. In the last two weeks there have been four positive tests, all in different departments (none in the CFC or in the K-8th grade pods), with none linked to one another, thereby providing no evidence of on-campus transmission. The cases comprise a mix of asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals and include two who were apparently exposed in travel over Thanksgiving. These cases underscore the fact that the risk of infection has significantly increased and requires our best efforts to prevent infection. I urge everyone to increase vigilance—keep distances from others, wear masks, and increase hand-washing—as we enter flu and cold season, bringing increased likelihood of transmission from contaminated surfaces. Avoid congregating in indoor spaces. And please remember to get a flu shot if you have not already done so. Given the extraordinary level of virus across the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, I strongly encourage everyone to cancel travel plans over the coming holidays. Based on updated guidance from New York State, we have recently amended the policy in order to release some travelers more quickly from our watch list if they meet certain criteria. All travel to states outside of New York must continue to be declared. The new policy also clarifies rules for commuters who travel regularly to Rockefeller from an out-of-state home. OHS will provide guidance on exact requirements based on your situation.

On the bright side, we can now see the potential for an end to the pandemic. Since my last letter, summaries of the final data for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna phase 3 vaccine trials have been released, and reportedly show ~95% reduction in infection rates in both trials, with nearly complete protection from severe infection and reportedly no severe adverse effects. These are both novel mRNA vaccines. Both of these vaccines are likely to obtain emergency use authorization in the coming weeks—indeed, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved in the UK earlier this week. It is expected that these vaccines will likely be widely available this spring, with earlier availability for high-risk individuals. Several other vaccines are likely to read out results in the coming weeks and months. In preparation for administering approved vaccines in New York, Governor Cuomo has convened a task force to do an independent review of the clinical trial data to ensure vaccine efficacy and safety. We are proud that our colleague Charlie Rice has agreed to co-chair this important review. Thank you, Charlie!

This good news provides strong exhortation to continue great diligence in avoiding infection in the coming months. In addition, continued compliance with the University’s COVID-19 travel policy is also critical.

Speaking of travel, I am pleased to welcome to campus Katya Vinogradova, our newest HOL, who has just arrived at Rockefeller from her post-doctoral fellowship at the Scripps Institute in California! Katya, an organic chemist who designs novel chemical probes to investigate the functions of immune proteins, recently published the impressive results of her work on this topic in a paper in Cell. After completing her quarantine upon arrival, she has been setting up her lab on the fifth floor of Flexner. Her permanent lab, on the fifth floor of Smith, will be ready in the new year. We are thrilled to have Katya on campus; please join me in welcoming her!

Please also join me in celebrating with Charlie Rice next week as he formally receives his Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work leading to the cure for hepatitis C. Although the usual formal ceremony and photo with the King of Sweden in Stockholm will not occur this year, the Nobel Foundation is planning a series of live and pre-recorded events to celebrate all of this year’s Nobelists. Charlie’s Nobel lecture will be on December 7 at 7 a.m. Eastern time; the presentation of Charlie’s award will take place on December 8 at 5 p.m. There is also a concert by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, a tribute to the laureates, and several other events. See a complete schedule and watch lives streams at nobelprize.org. I encourage all to tune in for this festive occasion.

Finally, I’m pleased to note that one of our science writers in the Communications and Public Affairs office, Bahar Gholipour, was recently featured (alongside Siddhartha Mukherjee, Adam Gopnik, and other well-regarded writers) in the 2020 anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her exploration of landmark experiments on neuroscience and free will, written just prior to her joining Rockefeller, is a fascinating read. Congratulations, Bahar!

Great science continues across our campus every day, and I will discuss more recent advances in my next letter. Until then, I hope everyone is able to take a little time to enjoy the mild weather we are having in early December before winter sets in. Please stay safe, be well, and take care of one another.

With best wishes,

Rick

Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
President