This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on November 13, 2020 at 2:31 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President
Elections and COVID have continued to dominate the news since my last note, both with mixed courses. Last week a record number of Americans—more than 150 million—voted in the presidential election. While the question remains open as to how much chaos will be sowed before the outcome is accepted, the strong voter turnout reflects a highly engaged democracy and produced a clear result.
The course of the COVID pandemic has become beyond dire across most of the US, with a meteoric increase from what we quaintly thought was a high level of 46,000 per day on October 1 to more than 150,000 new cases yesterday. It is unclear where this number will peak, as the rate of increase remains very high. This incredible rise has been accompanied by parallel increases in hospitalization that threaten to outstrip the capacity of hospitals to meet the demand for care in many states.
In NYC, after months of stably low levels of infection, the number of new cases and the percentage of positive tests for viral infection have significantly increased, with the positive test rate rising to an average of 2.3% over the last seven days. For context, only two other states have lower rates than NY and 28 states currently have positive test rates greater than 10%, with seven over 20%. These latter numbers were unimaginable just a short time ago. It is clear that we will need to be hypervigilant to prevent our city from returning to the high levels of infection we saw in March and April.
On campus, Bob Darnell’s clinical lab is offering his sensitive saliva-based test to everyone coming to campus on a weekly basis, and I urge you to take advantage of this resource. The vast majority of us are getting tested, about 1,200 of us each week. In the last two weeks testing identified three cases, two of which were asymptomatic. None of these cases are linked to one another. I note that none of these cases have been in the CFC, which still has had zero cases since reopening, a remarkable record. There are currently 30 people being monitored by Occupational Health Services, most of whom have returned recently from travel outside our region. Only one person in isolation who has not been tested has symptoms suggesting a possible diagnosis of COVID. Everyone should be getting tested weekly to ensure that we do not inadvertently spread infection in our community.
While our community infection rate remains low, the increasing trend in cases underscores the urgent need to increase our vigilance in response to the changing environment. I urge you to wear a mask indoors and out, maintain social distancing at all times, and wash hands frequently. Recent studies have provided evidence that a large fraction of infections come from social gatherings of small to medium-size groups in residences, restaurants and bars, and indicate we should all be wearing masks whenever getting together with anyone other than household members, and avoiding large gatherings.
The remarkable rise in infection rates comes as many of us are making plans for the coming holidays. Given the increased risk of acquiring and spreading infection both in traveling to and visiting most parts of the country outside our area as well as many other countries, I urge you to curtail plans to travel out of the area unless it is absolutely essential. Please also be aware of post-travel quarantine rules that are in effect at the state level and at Rockefeller. These may change as the risk of infection changes in the coming days and weeks.
In these challenging times, I want to remind everyone that if you or a colleague have signs of anxiety or depression, please don’t hesitate to take advantage of the excellent mental health resources available through Human Resources.
On the much brighter side, in the first interim look at data from Pfizer’s phase III randomized, controlled vaccine trial, the company reported strongly positive results, with a 90% reduction in new COVID cases in people receiving the vaccine compared to placebo. They have reported no significant difference in serious adverse events. Pfizer is expected to apply for emergency use authorization around the end of the month, with the potential of having vaccine available for front-line health care workers in the next few months and more broadly available by spring/summer. With several other vaccines targeting the same spike protein in development, it is possible that multiple vaccines will prove to be efficacious and safe, and may be available in the coming months.
This is extremely promising news and provides every incentive to, as Anthony Fauci exhorted today, “double down” on our preventive efforts and stay safe until we can all get vaccinated. And please remember to get a flu shot if you have not already done so.
Turning to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, I’d like to update you on one our key initiatives to ensure bias-free mentorship for our students and trainees. One of Rockefeller’s DEIJ goals is to expand research experiences in Rockefeller labs to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students from minority-serving institutions. In alignment with this goal, the Dean’s Office and RockEDU Science Outreach, along with a committee of HOLs and RiSI members, are working to improve and expand opportunities for mentorship and mentorship training at Rockefeller. A survey on mentorship opportunities and training has recently been circulated to students, postdocs, research associates, and research assistants. If you have not already done so, I encourage those who have received the survey to complete it and return it by Friday, November 20. The responses to the survey will help us develop our programs for high school and undergraduate students and influence how we can expand the recruitment and retention of traditionally underrepresented trainees. The survey is here.
Yesterday our Board of Trustees meet virtually for the second time since the pandemic began. It was a well-attended and productive meeting, and our Board members remain as committed as ever to supporting the university scientifically and operationally; they were extremely impressed by the depth and quality of the COVID-related research under way in more than 20 of our laboratories, and by the prospect for new preventive and therapeutic measures coming from these efforts. I also highlighted some of the current non-COVID research coming from our labs, including Priya Rajasethupathy’s lab’s work, which I noted in my October 16 letter, on the neural basis of working memory, and Sohail Tavazoie’s lab’s recent paper in Nature showing that cancer cells can induce nearby endothelial cells to express guidance cues that give cancer cells the pathway to access blood vessels and metastasize to distant organs. And they were truly wowed by Charlie Rice’s presentation describing the research for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and the incredible impact the cure for hepatitis C is having worldwide.
I am also pleased to share exciting news about Rockefeller’s new Women & Science Entrepreneurship Fund (WEF). The WEF was created to help ensure that every Rockefeller scientist who wants to realize the therapeutic potential of her discoveries has the support and encouragement to do so. Opportunities provided by the WEF will include a competitive grants program, project mentoring, professional development, and other training. The WEF has also inaugurated a new speaker series featuring women leaders in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. The first event will feature Dr. Karen Akinsanya, Executive Vice President, Chief Biomedical Scientist, and Head of Discovery R&D at Schrödinger, in an interview with Elaine Fuchs on December 2. I encourage you to register and attend!
Also this week, owing to the terrific efforts of Ginny Huffman and the HR team, we opened new “learning pods” on campus for students in grades K-8, which provide supervised space for children of Rockefeller trainees and employees who are engaged in distance learning. Forty-eight kids have enrolled and work in small pods. There is space to expand if interest grows (for details on eligibility and pricing, contact HR). This program, which comes as a great relief to many working parents, is a collaboration with the YMCA, which manages a number of similar programs and has been a terrific partner. With the evolution of the pandemic, the continued operation of this program is dependent upon policies of NYC agencies; we hope to be able to keep this program open and safe. All teachers and students coming to campus are being tested weekly for SARS-CoV-2.
Finally, I’m happy to announce that the Fall 2020 issue of Rockefeller’s research magazine Seek is now out. The cover story, on Rockefeller’s COVID work, highlights efforts by the Nussenzweig, Bieniasz, Rice, Casanova, Brady, and Kapoor labs to develop novel treatments for SARS-CoV-2. There are also engaging articles featuring the work of Jeanne Garbarino, Leslie Vosshall, and Daniel Mucida, and lots more. Pick up an issue on the CRC A-level or visit the Seek website to read more and sign up for Seek e-mails.
Since Rockefeller will be on Thanksgiving holiday two weeks from today, my next letter will be the following week. Although we may not be able to get together in person at large family gatherings this year, I hope that you are able to celebrate nevertheless, spending time with loved ones locally and virtually and creating new traditions.
Please 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