This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on October 1, 2020 at 3:45 p.m.
Subject: Update from the President
We are now well into fall on campus, with beautiful days and cooler temperatures. Activity on campus has noticeably picked up this week with the transition to Phase III+ in lab operations, which allows more scientists to be in our labs at the same time while continuing to maintain social distancing and mask wearing in the lab. The increased density during the day is resulting in a more normal environment on campus both in the labs and beyond, with much more frequent chance encounters with one another, a welcome tonic to the monastic experiences we’ve had on campus for so many months.
On the COVID-19 front, the daily case count across the U.S. continues to be distressingly high, about 40,000 newly diagnosed cases per day. Nonetheless, rates of new infection per capita vary 100-fold among different states, and the percentage of positive viral tests ranges from 0.4% in Maine to 25.9% in South Dakota. The Northeast continues to have the lowest incidence of new cases, and New York state maintains the fourth lowest per-capita case rate in the nation. Nonetheless, over the last two weeks a number of local hot spots of infection have emerged in the state and in NYC. In the city, the overall positive test rate has increased to 1.2% – 1.6% in the first four days of this week, and is now consistently more than 1% in all boroughs except Manhattan, which has remained about 0.8% (see NY health data website). The recent increases are particularly clustered in about 10 of NYC’s ~176 zip codes, concentrated in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island where positive test rates are ranging between 2% and 5% (see NYC Health website). These increases are believed to be in large part due to people no longer wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, underscoring the critical importance of continued vigilance to keep one another safe.
At Rockefeller, all on-campus tests for virus have been negative for the last two weeks, however one member of our community who had been in quarantine for contact with a known case had a positive test off campus. This person is mildly symptomatic. OHS is following 31 other members of our community in quarantine who have returned from travel in higher risk areas, or have had contact with known or suspected COVID-19 cases, or have reported symptoms. Among these, one is considered highly suspicious of COVID-19 following in-household contact with a person believed likely to have the virus. I urge everyone to continue to be vigilant in preventing infection. Remember to report to OHS all travel using the online travel questionnaire, and fill out the daily RU Healthy self-assessment checklist every day before coming to campus. Your ongoing care is essential to keeping our community safe.
With the cold and flu season approaching, there is the possibility of increased spread of COVID-19. Nonetheless there has been amazing news from the southern hemisphere, where Australia, South Africa, and the southern portion of South America are just finishing their normal flu seasons. There, the numbers of influenza cases have been exceptionally low. For example, Australia normally has ~16,000 documented cases of influenza per year. This season, only 83 cases had been diagnosed as of last week, a >99% reduction. This has been attributed to strong compliance with masks, social distancing, hand washing, and flu shots. This is a very strong argument for all of us to continue these practices diligently. OHS will begin administering flu shots by appointment next week. Watch for an announcement soon!
In this setting, now is a good time to be increasing testing on campus. Following a very successful pilot phase over the summer in which all students, teachers, and staff in the CFC were tested every week, Bob Darnell and his colleagues in the RU COVID testing lab, in collaboration with OHS, are expanding the RU testing program to offer weekly testing of all Rockefeller employees who work on campus, using the RU saliva-based virus test. We are strongly encouraging, but not at this time requiring, all Rockefeller employees who are coming to campus be tested weekly, and we are working to make the process as simple as possible. Each department and lab will designate a person who will pick up, distribute and return test kits for the entire group. Each person being tested will need to register online once on the secure Red Cap system, and then for each test will need only to enter the barcode on the test kit used to allow tracking of the sample and return of results. The test is a New York State-approved clinical test, and requires only a small amount of saliva. Samples will be processed on campus and positive results reported the same day. Please keep an eye out for more information from your supervisor along with detailed instructions for collecting test samples. My thanks to Bob Darnell’s lab, to OHS, and to HR for their hard work in developing this program and rolling it out.
The expanded testing program is a complement to our Phase III+ lab operations, mentioned above, which began on Monday. This follows the very successful Phase III operations for the last two months, which demonstrated that our laboratories can operate safely with the increased census on campus (approximately 1,400 people on weekdays) and that university administrative and support personnel can provide effective support for this larger census. Therefore, in Phase III+, laboratories will be able to increase their occupancy levels, including having more than one person per bay at the same time, as long as the bay occupants remain at least six feet from one another, continue to wear masks and remain diligent in hand washing and cleaning surfaces. Laboratories that can adhere to these guidelines can relax or eliminate the need for shift work. For more specifics, see the Phase III+ guidance webpage (VPN required) on our COVID-19 website.
Turning to great science, in the last week, two very important papers from a large international effort led by Jean-Laurent Casanova have been published together in Science that provide insight into why some people develop life-threatening disease following COVID-19 infection. In the first paper, comparing the DNA sequences of all the genes in the human genome in over 1,100 patients who had either life-threatening COVID-19 pneumonia or asymptomatic to mild infection revealed that those with severe infection were highly enriched for mutations that knock out genes that are required for production of type I interferon, which activates anti-viral responses to infection. In the companion paper, the group showed that another group of severely affected patients make antibodies to their own type I interferons, preventing their activity. Very surprisingly, 95% of the patients producing these antibodies were men. These antibodies were exclusively found in the group with severe infections compared to those with mild infections, and are likely to be present prior to infection. Collectively, these two causes of type I interferon deficiency may explain nearly 20% of severe COVID-19 cases and have important implications both for identifying people at high risk of severe disease and for devising new therapeutic approaches to prevent poor outcomes.
Continuing with great science, today Rockefeller has announced that Joanne Chory, Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at The Salk Institute, is this year’s winner of the 2020 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, which recognizes outstanding women in science. Dr. Chory is recognized for her extraordinary contributions to understanding the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that enable plants to perceive and respond to changes in light in their environment. Further details on Dr. Chory and the prize can be found here. Congratulations to Dr. Chory!
In yet more good news on the science front, I am happy to share the news that two of our postdocs, Amelia Escolano and Marc Schneeberger Pané, have been named Blavatnik Regional Award finalists in the life sciences. This award honors outstanding postdoctoral scientists from academic research institutions across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Amelia, who is in the Nussenzweig lab, is recognized for her development of a novel immunization procedure for use with an eventual HIV-1 vaccine. Marc, who is in the Friedman lab, is honored for his discovery that the brain’s dorsal raphe nucleus, usually associated with mood and wakefulness, also controls energy balance and body weight by regulating feeding behavior and body temperature. Please join me in congratulating Amelia and Marc on their well-deserved recognition!
And on a lighter note, I’m happy to report that the annual Rockefeller Golf Outing took place recently at the Mansion Ridge golf course in Monroe, NY, and had 124 participants. Every year, this terrific event raises funds to support the CFC. Thank you to all who participated!
Finally, a reminder that we are now 33 days away from the presidential election on November 3. In New York, the deadline to register to vote by mail or in-person is October 9, just over a week away. You have until October 27 to request a mail-in ballot, however if you are planning to mail in your ballot, I urge you not to wait until the last minute to request and submit your ballot.
Please be well and take of yourselves and one another.
With best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University