This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on July 2, 2020 at 1:52 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President
The thunderstorms this week are a sure sign that summer is upon us, and a quick look at the calendar leaves no doubt, with the 4th of July celebration on Saturday. Scientific activity on campus continues to ramp up, and the publication of two landmark manuscripts on the immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus serves notice that the extraordinary research that defines Rockefeller has continued despite the daunting challenges of the pandemic (more on that below).
Nationally, news on the pandemic is highly heterogeneous. More than 30 states are seeing rising rates of new SARS-CoV-2 infection, including dramatic 4- to 6-fold increases over the last month in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to levels approaching those previously only seen in NYC in late March. This is dire news and demonstrates, to the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, that the exposure of many uninfected, unprotected people to those with active infection is a prescription for exponential increases in infection rates. This replay of past experience is a frustrating reminder of Mark Twain’s adage, “There is nothing to be learned from the second kick of a mule.”
In contrast, the metrics continue to be encouraging in NYC, with the percentage of tests for viral RNA that are positive continuing to be very low at 1.1%, accompanied by fewer than 40 new hospital admissions for COVID-19 each day for the last week. This is despite substantial increases in economic activity in the city, including an increase in bus and subway ridership to ~2 million rides per day, along with the large protests across the city for the last month. It is inescapable that hand-washing, social distancing, and wearing masks, along with isolation of people who are infected, substantially reduces viral transmission.
At Rockefeller, the number of community members being monitored by the Occupational Health Services (OHS) office remains in the single digits, and our increasingly robust testing program is now offering saliva-based PCR tests and blood-draw antibody tests twice a week by appointment only(VPN required). I urge everyone to continue vigilance in protecting yourself and others from infection. With the confidence these measures are providing, and in rough alignment with the city’s reopening, the university plans to move to our next reopening phase, Phase III, on Monday, July 6. Phase III will permit a wider range of research and support activities and will bring a greater number of employees to campus, but strict social distancing practices will continue to be required to maintain our collective safety.
In Phase III, the daily census on campus is expected to increase to about 1,500 from the current count of about 1,000. All members of the Rockefeller community—whether new or longtime members—are required to swipe their ID cards anytime they pass through the main gate. I’m grateful for your cooperation with this policy.
In Phase III, those who can perform their jobs effectively from off-site will continue to work remotely. However, employees whose duties require them to be on campus will be asked to return to work. The Bass Dining Commons will reopen for breakfast and lunch, but service will be by preorder for pickup only. (Information about how to order online was emailed to the community earlier today by Great Performances.) The Abby Dining Room and the CRC Café will remain closed for now. The complete set of guidelines for Phase III of the university’s reopening is here (VPN required). Our current expectation is that Phase III will be in place through the end of August, but we will continue to monitor the metrics and will be careful not to jeopardize our hard-won progress toward a return to full functionality.
Regarding COVID-19 research, two amazing papers from Michel Nussenzweig, Paul Bieniasz, and Charlie Rice have recently been published. The first, published as an Article in Nature, reports identification of monoclonal antibodies cloned from the antibody-producing cells of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 that are highly potent in neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Two of these antibodies, which recognize different parts of the viral spike protein that mediates binding to the cellular receptor the virus uses to infect cells, appear to be an ideal pair for stopping or preventing infection. These antibodies are being prepared at scale in order to move toward clinical trials and have great potential for clinical use. The second paper, published in Cell in collaboration with Pamela Bjorkman at Caltech, shows the cryo-EM structure of one of these antibodies bound to the spike protein, giving near-atomic level resolution. Fittingly, these neutralizing antibodies were the feature of NIH director Francis Collins’ blog on Wednesday of this week.
Last week, I reported that we’ve retained an outside firm to develop a university-wide climate survey to help us assess issues of equality in our community. Development of the survey is proceeding, and I will provide more details next week.
In closing, this weekend the nation celebrates its Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, which included the foundational promise: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As we reflect on this profound proclamation, we should consider how well our national reality matches our ideals. In doing so in 1959, James Baldwin wrote, “Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began.”
The events of the last 5+ weeks have made starkly clear that the gap between our ideals and reality remains shockingly wide and must be addressed. As individuals, as colleagues in a great institution, and as a nation, we have the opportunity and obligation to drive America toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by this nation’s imperfect founders. Please make time this weekend to consider and commit to putting into action the roles you can play in the advance of liberty, equality, and justice.
Wishing you and your families a happy 4th of July!
With all best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University