Yale vs Covid

Richard Borge

Richard Borge

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Emergency science

By Jenny Blair ’97, ’04MD

The pandemic’s arrival in the united states did not surprise Saad Omer. “We knew this was coming,” says Omer, an epidemiologist and director of Yale’s Institute for Global Health. “We could see the signs.” 

Omer, now quoted regularly in the media interpreting conflicting pronouncements from experts and politicians, is one of many Yale scientists who convened with School of Medicine dean Nancy Brown ’81 in February for cross-campus discussions to prepare for the onset of the pandemic in the US and Connecticut.

Today, he’s one of a small group of Yale scientists who have set their own research aside to plunge into the study of the virus. Most non-COVID-related research was shut down when the campus closed in mid-March. But about a dozen labs of the undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and several dozen more on the medical campus were still active. In those labs, social distancing and the pressing need for discovery have brought isolation and long hours. Some of them work late at night in half-empty labs. But Yale scientists are collaborating across departments, schools, and even borders to investigate the novel coronavirus. Here, we list several of those scientists and their studies—along with a few whose research, for the moment, is on hold.

Masked and gloved, staff in the lab of viral immunologist Akiko Iwasaki now work in shifts around the clock, with only one person at a time allowed per bay. (The norm can be two, four, or more.) Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, says the lack of childcare is “putting a lot of pressure on mothers who are scientists.” But in spite of everything, her lab is conducting a host of studies of people’s varying immune responses to the coronavirus, including one focused on why men get sicker with COVID-19 than women do.

At the medical school, most clinical trials were put on pause. But associate professor Mahalia Desruisseaux, whose lab studies cerebral malaria, took on a study of convalescent plasma treatment in COVID-19 patients. “I really had no clue that I would be jumping in headfirst into clinical research, but here we are,” she says. And she’s happy about it. “Even though it’s not the work I’m used to doing, it’s close enough. It’s not parasites, and I’m not a virologist, but I can look at host response.”

Jordan Peccia has been busy with a project to sample primary sludge for coronavirus at New Haven’s wastewater-treatment plant. Peccia is a chemical and environmental engineering professor, and his team found that the virus’s presence in sludge detects outbreak trends several days before community testing does. The project has involved collaborators from the medical and management schools, as well as the Yale Institute for Global Health: Omer is working with the World Bank on applying the results in low-income countries. Such cross-disciplinary, even transnational collaboration is the new normal now, at least with COVID-19 research.

At Yale, that trend began in the pandemic’s earliest days, when Nancy Brown’s cross-campus Zoom meetings included everyone from scientists to lawyers to engineers. Engineers worked with doctors to adapt mechanical ventilators and test PPE donations. Doctors and lawyers tackled COVID-19 in prisons. And Eli Fenichel, a professor at the School of the Environment, worked with Omer on voluntary behavior changes by Americans in response to the COVID-19  epidemic. The speed at which coronavirus–related research is proceeding has floored him: “The whole situation is pretty mind-boggling. We’ve been basically writing a new research paper probably on about a two-week cycle.” What’s normal? Eight months.
Sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis ’84 had previously studied the use of cell-phone data to assess social structures. Near the end of January, he began applying the technique to Wuhan’s outbreak and found that population flows predicted the spread of COVID-19 in China. On February 18, he submitted a paper to Nature. (The paper was accepted, appearing online April 29.) “That was an incredible three weeks,” he says. “I haven’t had that experience since I was a postdoc—that level of intensity.” 

A few of the many other COVID-19 efforts at Yale:

. Craig Wilen’s lab is investigating which types of airway cells the coronavirus is drawn to—it appears to prefer ciliated cells—and how it interacts with those cells and with the immune system to bring about disease.

. Some severely ill COVID-19 patients develop a lung condition that can kill them. Geoffrey Chupp and researchers in Yale’s Advanced Therapies Group have started clinical trials of an asthma drug that may reduce the severity of the illness.

. Adrian Haimovich ’16PhD, ’18MD, and postdoc Neal Ravindra ’19PhD devised a short medical questionnaire that helps health-care workers find out quickly whether a COVID-19 patient’s situation is urgent.

. If an older patient has both high blood pressure and COVID-19, but is taking ACE inhibitors to reduce their blood pressure, they are almost 40 percent less likely to need hospitalization—as Harlan Krumholz ’80 and Deneen Vojta of UnitedHealth Group discovered in an analysis of 10,000 patient records. They also found that other blood pressure medications did not have the same effect.

“The speed of discovery in the COVID era is unbelievable. None of us have ever seen anything like this,” says immunologist Ruth Montgomery, a professor of medicine and of epidemiology, who is studying immune cells in the airways of COVID-19 patients. “Before, it might have taken ten days to set up for a conference. Now it’s all done in hours.” Many scientists are also uploading their research directly to preprint servers, which don’t require peer review. Although that has its downsides, “everyone is feeling the urgency to respond to this pandemic, and the speed of sharing data is transforming what people can do,” Montgomery says. “The bouncing around of new ideas has been tremendous.”

What of those who aren’t working on COVID-19 projects?
Physics department chair and neutrino researcher Karsten Heeger says his field recently held a successful conference online. But it may be small comfort for those who want to get back to their physics labs, which—with their experimental work including shared computers—don’t lend themselves easily to social distancing. Heeger adds, “When you construct and build a new instrument, not touching surfaces becomes a real challenge.”
Then there are the outdoor scientists, who have been asked to pause visits to fields, forests, and outcroppings. But once parameters are set, says Oswald Schmitz, a dean at the School of the Environment, “one of the nice things about environmental research, especially field-based, is that we can socially distance easily while in the field.” Each researcher can ride to the field, carrying food to avoid stops in communities where they might introduce the virus. As for research that involves face-to-face contact, such as monitoring drinking water in a fracking zone, it has a very uncertain near-term future. “A lot of our doctoral students who are anthropologists and social scientists, they absolutely can’t do anything,” says Schmitz. “They’re just sitting on their hands right now.”
Professor Sandy Chang ’88 researches telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes, but his work is also on pause. As Dean of STEM Education at Yale College, he oversaw a $1.2 million budget for undergraduate summer research, but research was canceled this summer. In its place, he has devised a virtual mentoring program in which undergrads work with Yale scientists on skills like data crunching and reading primary scientific literature.
He’s also leading a COVID-19–themed online summer workshop. Students are reading journal articles on the pandemic from a variety of fields and writing mock grant proposals; scientists in various disciplines will give talks introducing students to their own fields and research. And students will receive the research stipends they were counting on.

As of June 1, the university has—very carefully—begun to phase research back in and allow more labs to reopen. Researchers will have to prove that their work can allow for social distancing.
Some of those who have gone all out for COVID-19 may be reassessing their research priorities as well. Fenichel recently learned that he had received a grant he’d applied for before the pandemic. The topic: the value of moose hunting in Newfoundland.
“It’s so surreal,” he says.