This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on October 16, 2020 at 9:48 a.m.
Subject: Update from the President
I just have to start today’s letter reflecting on how great it was to wake up to the news last week that our colleague and friend Charlie Rice had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. We have spent a fair amount of time over the last year and a half talking about the convergence of basic science and clinical medicine. Charlie is a perfect exemplar of this principle: a hard-core basic science virologist who recognized from his pioneering work on yellow fever virus that the known genome of the related hepatitis C virus – which causes 400,000 deaths annually from liver failure – was incomplete, and missing the end of the sequence, which was essential for viral replication. Charlie not only proved this was correct, he went on to make a miniature version of the viral genome that can’t make infectious virus but was perfect for screening for drugs that inhibit the viral life cycle. This led to development of highly potent and safe drugs that, remarkably, can cure nearly all people who have chronic infection with hepatitis C. These drugs have been given to more than 5 million people already and will prevent disability and save millions of lives. It’s an incredible demonstration of the power of science to improve the human condition. Congratulations again to Charlie and his many colleagues and trainees who contributed to this momentous advance. I look forward to all of us being able to celebrate as a community in person in the future.
The news on COVID-19 is at best mixed. The infection case count nationwide has been climbing for the last two weeks and exceeded 60,000 new cases yesterday for the first time since the end of July. New infections are increasing in nearly every state and are at all-time highs in half the states. While there is better news in the Northeast and in NYC, where the percentage of positive tests continues to hover between 1.0 and 1.3 percent, there are hot spots localized to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island that have resulted in targeted closures of schools, houses of worship, and other areas where the public gathers. It’s very encouraging that case numbers and positivity rates in NYC remain about where they were at the end of September—which is near the lowest rate in the nation. Nonetheless it’s clear that the nation is in the midst of a significant surge in infection and we will need to increase our vigilance to prevent this from spreading across NYC and our campus.
At Rockefeller, we are now four months into our reopening, and testing on campus has been scaling up. Last week 1,280 people on campus were tested, and all results were negative. Unfortunately, this week we are aware of two people in our community who have tested positive. We have no evidence that either of these infections were acquired on campus, but OHS is carefully following up via contact tracing. This sobering news serves as a reminder that we all need to play very active roles in keeping ourselves and our community healthy. I urge everyone not to let your guard down—keep social distancing, wearing masks, and washing your hands.
Relatedly, I also encourage everyone to get a flu shot. A severe flu season on top of the existing COVID-19 pandemic could be catastrophic. OHS received its stock of flu vaccines about a week ago, and shots are available free of charge to all Rockefeller personnel. Please use the online scheduler to make an appointment. Those covered by Rockefeller insurance can also get a flu shot without copay at their doctor’s office, urgent care center, or CVS Minute Clinic. If you go to a pharmacy you may need to pay up front but will be reimbursed.
Through the Herculean efforts of Virginia Huffman and her staff, plans are underway to offer distance learning pods on campus for children of Rockefeller employees in grades K through 8 on days they are not attending school in person, a situation that has put tremendous pressure on working families. Rockefeller’s program, operated by the YMCA, will allow children to be in supervised learning pods of no more than 15 children overseen by childcare professionals who provide technical and educational support during distance-learning activities. Weekly COVID-19 testing will be provided by the University, and cost to families will be subsidized by the University and based on income.
Turning back to science, I am also very happy to share the news that Luciano Marraffini is being honored with the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal for his work on CRISPR-Cas9. Luciano made the seminal discovery that CRISPR-Cas9 protects bacteria from infection with viruses by attacking viral DNA rather than, as was widely believed, RNA—a finding that made possible the use of CRISPR technology as a programmable gene-editing tool. He has gone on to elucidate the varied and detailed mechanisms by which different CRISPR-Cas systems perform their remarkable feats to protect against invading viruses. This prize, established in 2018, is given by the German government to researchers from outside the country. Congratulations to Luciano on this great recognition!
On the current science front, Priya Rajasethupathy’s lab just published a remarkable paper in Cell that identifies inherited variation in activity of an orphan G protein-coupled receptor as the cause of variation in short-term memory in mice. The mechanism of this effect appears to be synchronization of the activity of the thalamus and pre-frontal cortex. This result is amazing and wholly unanticipated and has profound implications for understanding how ‘working memory’ operates and its role in cognition. Congratulations to Priya and her labmates!
Finally, a reminder that we are now just 18 days from the presidential election. In New York, you have until October 27 to request a mail-in ballot. If you are planning to vote by mail, I urge you not to wait until the last minute to request and submit your ballot. But most importantly, exercise your right to vote!
Please stay safe and be well.
With best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics