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This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on September 4, 2020 at 11:12 a.m.
Subject: Update from the President

OOP HEader

Dear colleagues,

September is here, along with its spectacular New York weather. This coming long weekend is predicted to be sunny and in the low 80s, a perfect opportunity for enjoying outdoor activities. I hope you will be able to enjoy some socially distanced recreation.

Locally, the COVID-19 infection rate remains low, with fewer than one percent of tests being positive in NYC over the last week. New York’s careful approach to reopening has allowed us to maintain very low levels of transmission over the entire summer, while much of the rest of the country has seen large surges in case numbers. Moreover, the state’s testing program has been quite successful and is now one of the strongest in the nation, and has likewise contributed to the positive trend, allowing early identification of case clusters and contact tracing to break chains of transmission. Vigilance in adhering to guidelines remains essential.

The OHS watch list of Rockefeller employees who may be at risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection because of social contacts, travel history, or clinical symptoms remains stable. There have been no new positive tests on campus in the last two weeks, and Bob Darnell’s lab has been scaling up its capacity, doing more than 100 tests per day recently, as necessary equipment is being set up and new personnel are trained. As a reminder, anyone who has traveled out of the region is subject to a 14-day quarantine upon their return, per state policy, regardless of whether they have exhibited symptoms or received a negative result on a viral test. Anyone with symptoms should stay home and contact OHS for instructions.

In an effort to continue to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission on campus, I’m pleased to report that a new program to disinfect N95 masks using UV light—a project of Tom Sakmar, Lab Safety, and the PIT—is now up and running. The team has built three UV disinfection boxes, adapted from DNA Stratalinkers originally used to fix DNA to nylon or nitrocellulose membranes. They have performed rigorous validation tests to ensure that the boxes thoroughly and reliably sterilize masks for reuse without impairing their efficacy. Employees who are using N95s provided by the University for commuting on public transit are advised to use the self-serve disinfection machines every week, or anytime they believe their masks may have been contaminated. Disinfection stations can be found in a number of locations on campus, including in the CFC. (Treatment is not needed for cloth face coverings, which can typically be washed with ordinary laundry, or for surgical masks, which are disposable.)

I’m also pleased to report that next week the CFC is moving to the next phase of its reopening and will begin phasing in new students to reach a total of 105 children, up from the 58 that could be accommodated during July and August. The CFC, with support from OHS and the Darnell lab, is testing all children and teachers on a weekly basis; there is now a full-time nurse on site. Normal operation of the CFC is important for young children in our community and for their parents who are part of our work force. We are grateful to Ginny Huffman, Pamela Stark, and the entire CFC staff, as well as OHS, which has overseen the testing program for children, parents, and staff, for their tireless efforts to restore these services.

You will have seen by now my email on Tuesday with the results of the climate survey, as well as my email yesterday outlining our progress in implementing initiatives to address issues of inequality and racial bias in our community. I encourage you to review the information and continue to identify and implement ways to strengthen an environment of inclusion and belonging among our community. Your thoughtful responses reflect the depth of engagement across the University.

In scientific advances on campus, the labs of Mike Rout and Brian Chait have made great progress in purifying nanobodies that specifically bind to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Nanobodies are single domain proteins, containing highly variable binding domains analogous to the variable region of the heavy or light chains of antibodies. These are produced by a variety of species, and Rout and Chait have purified nanobodies from llamas after immunization with the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Some of these nanobodies are fantastically tight binders of different portions of the spike protein. Most immediately, these nanobodies have potential use as diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2 infection, testing for viral antigen in a so-called lateral flow assay, similar in principle to a home pregnancy test. The advantage of these nanobodies is that their very high stability and very strong binding to antigen might make them suitable for home use, obviating the need for testing by a health care provider. They also can be produced in massive quantities in bacteria, making them much less expensive to produce than antibodies that are now in use for diagnosis by antigen detection. While much remains to be done, this is a very promising path forward for greatly expanding access to testing.

Finally, let me remind you of this fall’s election. There has been much discussion over the past several months, both nationally and within our community, about access to voting. Voting is a fundamental right and responsibility of all citizens in a democracy, one that should be cherished and promoted. The pandemic has imposed particular challenges to voting this year. In support of our democracy, I’m pleased to announce that this year’s Election Day, November 3, will be an official paid Rockefeller University holiday. I encourage you to participate in our democracy by voting for the candidates of your choice, by volunteering for a campaign, or by working at a polling site to ensure that the right to vote is freely exercised.

If you have questions about when, where, or how to vote, please note the following:

  • In New York, the deadline to register to vote is October 9. Registration can be done by mail, in person, or online if you have a New York drivers license and a social security number. You can also request a mail-in ballot online until October 27. Early in-person voting is available from October 24 to November 1.
  • In New Jersey, the deadline to register is October 13. Registration can be done by mail or in person only. New Jersey mails ballots to all registered voters automatically. It also offers in-person early voting beginning September 19.
  • In Connecticut, the deadline to register is October 27. Registration can be done by mail, in person, or online if you have a Connecticut drivers license. Connecticut does not have mail-in or early voting and may require an ID and/or proof of residence at the polling site.

For more information, visit Now is the time to use the site’s voter lookup tool to confirm that you are registered where you think you are, especially if you have moved or haven’t voted recently.

With best wishes,


Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University