This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on February 12, 2021 at 12:03 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President
For everyone who had forgotten what a big winter storm looks like, winter storm Orlena dropped 17.4 inches of snow in Manhattan on February 1, one of the largest storms in NYC on record and the largest in five years. My thanks and respect go out to the custodial, plant ops and grounds crews whose tremendous efforts kept our walkways and driveways clear throughout. I think we had the only, and certainly the largest, area of dry walkways in NYC on February 2. Many thanks as well to all the essential personnel who made it to work despite the blizzard, including those in security, the CBC, research support, RUH, lab safety, and procurement. Because of the dedication of these essential workers, some of whom stayed overnight on campus to ensure that critical work could be done, the disruption was minimal, and our science marched on.
The national COVID-19 infection rate has plummeted by 60% from an average of ~250,000 new cases per day at its peak on January 8 to <100,000 per day yesterday. While cases locally have also come down in NYC, the rate of decline has been slower, only 18% down from the peak level, with the percentage of positive tests only declining from 5.3% to 5.1% over the last 2 weeks. Because NY city and state are declining so slowly, the state now has the fifth highest infection rate in the country. At Rockefeller, 12 new cases have been diagnosed over the last two weeks among >2,800 tests performed in the Darnell lab. There is no evidence of on-campus transmission among these cases, but the infection rate nonetheless remains high, and everyone is urged to take all possible precautions. This week the CDC recommended wearing a multilayered cloth mask over a surgical mask to get a tighter fit with fewer air leaks, providing greater protection. See this link.
The vaccine rollout continues to gain steam, with the US vaccinating 2 million people in one day for the first time this week, despite shortages in supply slowing the pace on some days. In New York State, 2.8 million vaccine doses have been administered thus far. Please note that beginning February 15, adults of all ages with certain health conditions will become eligible to make appointments to receive a first dose (see link). Unfortunately, supplies remain limited and appointments can be hard to get. We continue to hope that the order we have placed for vaccines for our community will eventually be filled, but we have no updates on timing. In the meantime I encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible wherever you can secure an appointment. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself, and it is also protective of those around you. With each vaccination we are also reducing opportunities for development of new coronavirus variants that have begun to emerge.
This week Paul Bieniasz and I presented another of the Virtual Discussions with Genuine Experts webinars, discussing progress on the vaccines and the impact of emerging variants in the viral genome sequence, for which Paul has produced much of the best data that is being widely cited. His results are fascinating, showing that people who have had either the Pfizer or Moderna RNA vaccine have lower levels of neutralizing antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 variants now widely circulating in South Africa. Nonetheless, the antibody levels are still sufficiently high that they should continue to provide substantial protection. This is very promising, but we will await the results of clinical trials in areas in which variant viruses predominate.
Also, real-world data on vaccine efficacy is starting to emerge, and shows very high efficacy of vaccination. In the webinar, I mentioned data just hitting the news that in Israel, where a large fraction of older people has been vaccinated, the number of new cases in the elderly dropped significantly, whereas cases in younger unvaccinated populations continued unchanged. Last evening, Yotam Sagi, a senior research associate in the Greengard lab sent me follow-up data published in the Israeli press on Thursday. The data show 79% of Israelis over age 50 have now had had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Israel’s largest health care system reported that in people over 65 years of age, vaccination reduced hospitalization for COVID-19 by 93%, and reduced death by 94%. Similar reductions were seen for people 45-65 and 15-44. These are remarkable real-world data, and strongly support getting vaccinated as soon as possible. Thank you Yotam for sending the data and for translating the tables from Hebrew!
Also yesterday, President Biden confirmed that the government has secured an additional 200 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer and Moderna, slated to be available by the end of June. This would provide sufficient vaccine for at least 90% of the U.S. population, including all adults and at least half of those under 18. This is very promising.
As you know, Rockefeller’s Occupational Health Services office has played a critical role in managing the impact of the COVID pandemic on our campus, and I am pleased to share two key staffing changes in OHS. Ann Campbell has done an exceptional job of keeping our campus community safe, from the early days of the pandemic until now, working closely with the terrific RUStrong testing program. She has provided oversight to the COVID contact tracing and monitoring program and is committed to seeing us through the next phases of the pandemic. Recently, she coordinated our partnership with Weill Cornell Medicine to enable eligible members of our community to be vaccinated at that location. She has also developed a comprehensive plan to vaccinate the RU community once the University receives a vaccine supply from the state. In recognition of her great contributions, Ann has been named COVID Program Director. Congratulations Ann!
Additionally, Janica Barnett has been recruited as Director of Occupational Health, succeeding Ashley Foo in this role. Janica is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Nursing and an experienced nurse practitioner. She was previously employed at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and in the Mount Sinai Health System, where she was a Clinical Program Manager. She brings strong managerial and administrative skills combined with a great clinical nursing background, and will maintain the high level of service that our community has come to rely on. Janica is excited to become a part of the Rockefeller community and will enhance an already exceptional program. Please join me in welcoming Janica to our community!
Turning to science, there is exciting news to report this week about the SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies developed in the lab of Michel Nussenzweig. After promising results from preclinical studies, and with human trials now underway in the Rockefeller University Hospital, Rockefeller has entered a licensing agreement with Bristol Myers Squibb, a global pharmaceutical company, to advance development of a pair of monoclonal antibodies discovered in Michel’s lab. The agreement provides a path through clinical development to the manufacture and distribution of these antibodies for therapy and prevention of COVID-19. Congratulations to Michel, and to Paul Bieniasz, Charlie Rice, and their many collaborators on this milestone!
I am also pleased to announce that despite the many challenges of the pandemic over the last year, Rockefeller scientists have continued to do great science. As but one mark of this, in 2020 Rockefeller faculty published 59 manuscripts in the three science journals considered to have the highest impact: Science, Nature, and Cell. This was our second highest total ever, exceeded only in 2017.
I am enormously proud of the way our community has responded to the immense challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing to conduct world-leading science while adhering to the highest safety standards.
Finally, February is Black History Month, and I’d like to acknowledge the contributions that Black scientists have made to biology and medicine over many decades, including seminal work by Charles Drew in development of blood banking for transfusion, Daniel Hale Williams’ contributions to heart surgery, contributions to understanding risk factors for atherosclerosis by Marie M. Daly, development of a novel and effective method for treating leprosy by Alice Augusta Ball, studies of fertilization and early development by Ernest Everett Just, and the discovery of photosynthesis in algae by Emmett Chappelle. These scientists, worked at a time when universities and hospitals routinely discriminated against people of color as a matter of policy, and they had to overcome tremendous political and cultural barriers to obtain an education and conduct high-impact research. These champions of science serve as reminders that talent flourishes wherever it finds opportunity. It’s up to us to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed in science through strong educational programs, the elimination of cultural biases, and an embrace of diversity.
Happy Lunar New Year! Please continue to stay safe, be well, and take care of one another.
With best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics