After the cool rainy weather over the last week, it looks like we’re lurching straight into summer heat in the coming days. On campus, the Lulu Wang Gardens are really showing off, with new flowers blooming each week—it’s the roses’ turn this week, and they are glorious.
The rate of new COVID infections nationally and in NYC has continued its dramatic decline, with new cases down by 95% since the peak in January (and a 60% drop over the last two weeks) to levels that are now lower than they’ve been since the start of the pandemic, with only 3.6 new cases per 100,000 population per day in NYC, paralleled by steep declines in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths. Rockefeller has seen the same sharp decline in new diagnoses. We have had zero new positive tests among 2,471 on-campus tests in the last two weeks, with only one positive test in a person who was off campus. In fact, as of today, we have not had a positive test on campus in 31 days!
A significant contribution to this uniformly dramatic decline in infection rate across the US is the growing fraction of the population that is now vaccinated. More than 189 million people (including 63% of the adult population) have had at least one vaccine dose administered, and 52% are fully vaccinated. The percentages in NYC are nearly identical. At Rockefeller, we are now at 91% and 85%, respectively, a reflection of our belief in science and data, which indicate the vaccines are extremely safe and highly effective. I urge you to get vaccinated as soon as possible if you are one of the few who have not already done so, and to encourage those you know who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as well. It’s as easy as visiting the Kellen BioLink right here on campus during its walk-in hours (please see the weekly emails from OHS indicating the hours and availability of access). Vaccinations are available there to everyone age 12 and over, whether or not they have an affiliation with Rockefeller. If it’s not convenient to get vaccinated on campus, there are vaccination sites with availability throughout the city and the region. To find one, see the New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut vaccination finder apps.
We are now winning this fight against COVID, and I urge everyone to contribute to putting the pandemic behind us. Getting vaccinated now is the very best way to prevent the virus from returning next fall and winter as it did last fall with devastating effect. At the Board of Trustees meeting this past Wednesday, I interviewed expert virologist and Rockefeller Head of Lab Paul Bieniasz about his views of the emergence and threat of variant viruses and the course of the pandemic. He is confident that current vaccines in the US remain highly effective against all the variants that have emerged thus far, and he indicated that his biggest concern is that too many people will not get vaccinated, leaving room for a resurgence of infection. In his typically matter-of-fact style, he said that in the long run virtually all of us will either get vaccinated or infected. This is an easy choice.
The impact of the rapid decline in cases is having great impact on campus life. Over the last two weeks people are once again getting together in person for lunch on the Bass Dining Commons patio, for scientific group meetings, and after hours at the Faculty Club (photos below). The effect on morale and mental health has been palpable. After such a long period of social isolation, it is just great to see and meet with one another in person again!
Though not the primary motivation, there are benefits that come with vaccination. As endorsed by the CDC, vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks indoors or out while on campus (but may do so if they prefer, of course) and no longer need to quarantine after traveling. We also anticipate reopening the Founder’s gym and providing indoor dining options for those who are fully vaccinated. Please see Tim O’Connor’s May 28 e-mail or the updated Phase III+ guidance for the latest information on policies. Off campus, benefits for vaccinated people seem likely to emerge as well under New York State’s new “Excelsior Pass” program, which provides digital proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests via a smartphone app. And I note that many schools, universities, and employers have announced plans to make vaccination mandatory once vaccines have full FDA approval, which may come this summer. Don’t wait. Get vaccinated now!
Speaking of Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting, although it again took place virtually, Chair of the Board Bill Ford and I delivered our reports via Zoom together from the table in my office, a small step toward in-person normalcy. Our trustees have been enormously supportive throughout this past year; we are so indebted to them for their generosity and vision.
I am pleased to announce that at this week’s meeting the board unanimously elected and welcomed our newest trustee, Karen Akinsanya, executive vice president, chief biomedical scientist, and head of discovery research and development for Schrödinger, a highly innovative biotech company that uses advanced biophysical simulation to design new and better medicines. A native of the UK, Karen has more than 25 years of experience in pharmaceutical R&D, partnerships, licensing, and academia. She also has a strong commitment to K-12 STEM education, particularly for underrepresented minority groups, and is a founder and curriculum advisor for My Tech Learning. As many of you may recall, in December, she was the inaugural speaker at the newly launched Women & Science Entrepreneurship Fund Speaker Series. She is a wonderful addition to the Board of Trustees, and I know she will make important contributions to the University’s mission in the coming years.
Next week, we will celebrate Rockefeller’s 63rd Convocation! This year we will be celebrating, virtually, the awarding of Ph.D. degrees to our 33 exceptional students whose hard work and achievements across the biomedical disciplines have provided important new insights into biomedicine and have set the stage for their future successes. We also will be awarding honorary degrees to four remarkable individuals: Trustee emeritus Henry R. Kravis and Marie-Josée Kravis; and longtime members of the board’s Committee on Scientific Affairs Tom Maniatis and Pippa Marrack. I invite you all to register to attend this event to celebrate all our honorees, which will be held June 10 at 2:30 p.m.
Finally, on Wednesday the annual Leiden rankings were released, reporting the impact of publications from the world’s research universities as assessed by how often they are cited in publications from other institutions. Once again, for the 6th year running (including results of the parallel U-Multirank list), Rockefeller ranked number 1 in the world, with more of our papers in the top 1% and top 10% of the most-cited papers in their field than any other institution. 6.1% of our papers were in the top 1% of the most-cited papers in their fields, and 32% were in the top 10% of the most-cited papers. These results provide objective testimony to the high quality and impact of our research and our leading role in global science. Congratulations to everyone at Rockefeller, including the faculty, trainees, staff, and trustees. It is our collective effort that drives our success in our mission. I am so proud to be part of this remarkable community.
Please continue to stay safe and take care of one another.
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University