I hope everyone is well.
We have been through a lot together throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and have been highly successful in keeping one another safe while continuing to advance the great science that defines our university. The thrill of the very low levels of infection in NYC this spring that permitted us to meet in person without masks in June has been overtaken by the extraordinarily rapid spread of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is far more infectious than prior strains, and has become the predominant strain of the virus in the U.S. This virus is racing through the U.S. population, causing dramatic increases in case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths, with more than 650 deaths per day. ICUs are now at or beyond capacity in many parts of the South and Midwest and case numbers nationally are over 125,000 per day and still climbing. In NYC, we now have more than 2000 new cases diagnosed per day. And on campus, after more than two months of zero cases, we have had 16 cases in the last month among trainees and staff, plus one retiree and one infant in our community. In response to this ongoing threat, we must use the best science and best judgment to protect ourselves, our families, and our community.
Unlike the previous waves of infection, we are fortunate to have a critical new piece of armor to add to our protection. Two highly effective and very safe RNA-based vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, are readily available to everyone over age 12 at no cost. These vaccines were first approved for emergency use in the pandemic in December of 2020 after randomized controlled clinical trials demonstrated strong protection from COVID-19 with very rare serious adverse effects. They have now been administered to more than 193 million people in the U.S., including 72% of the entire adult population, comprising all races and ethnicities. The real- world data from their widespread use has reiterated that they are extremely effective. They substantially reduce the rate of infection of vaccinated people, and reduce their ability to transmit the virus if they become infected. Most critically, these vaccines also spectacularly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for those who do become infected. Across the country, they have reduced the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 by more than 95% and 98%, respectively, compared to the risk in unvaccinated people. This has had a large effect on public health. COVID-19 has killed 613,000 people in the U.S. (1 in 340 adults) and 4.3 million people worldwide. By July 1 of this year, vaccination is estimated to have prevented more than 275,000 deaths in the U.S., a number that has surely continued to grow during the surge in the last 6 weeks. These vaccines are a stunning achievement and an extraordinary contributor to public health.
Equally importantly, these vaccines are also extremely safe. Common side effects of vaccination include some soreness at the site of vaccine injection, and some people get fatigue and/or mild flu-like symptoms for 1 to 3 days. The most serious adverse effect of these RNA vaccines is anaphylaxis- a severe allergic reaction that is very rare, occurring in only about 1 in 100,000 people, typically within minutes after vaccination. For this reason, people stay at the vaccination center for 15 minutes after vaccination, and are treated immediately with epinephrine if this rare side effect occurs. Unfortunately, false rumors claiming other common serious side effects of the vaccines are rampant and widely spread on the internet, but none have significant supporting evidence among the 193 million people in the U.S. who have received these vaccines. It is alarming and tragic that widespread misinformation has sowed doubt in the minds of some about the safety of these vaccines, making them wary of getting vaccinated. Others distrust the government and are suspicious about the safety of these new vaccines. The incredible number of people in the U.S. and around the world who have received and benefitted from these vaccines in every country that has used them constitutes unequivocal evidence of their efficacy and safety.
Still others don’t see the need to get vaccinated. While acknowledging the risk to older people, some younger adults dismiss their risk of serious complications of COVID-19 and remain unvaccinated. It is important to note that today 40% of the 76,000 people hospitalized in the U.S. due to COVID-19 are between ages 18 and 49. Moreover, about 10% of younger, previously healthy people who have seemingly mild cases go on to have long-lasting debilitating symptoms for many months after infection, so-called “long haulers.” Getting infected at any age is ill-advised. It has been particularly searing to hear pleas of unvaccinated people who are near death from COVID-19, urging everyone to get vaccinated and regretting their own decision not to do so.
Lastly, it is well-known that the more people who are infected, the greater the chance of the virus mutating to forms that are even more infectious or cause more severe disease. The best defense against continued evolution of the virus to more virulent forms is to minimize the prevalence of infection.
For all these reasons, it is vital that everyone eligible gets vaccinated (this includes our children over age 12 as they head back to school). As a great biomedical research institution that cherishes scientific advances that benefit humanity, we should all take particular pride in getting vaccinated and doing our part to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, as well as setting an example for others to follow. I am very proud that to date more than 94% of all trainees and staff of Rockefeller are fully vaccinated, and hopeful that we can reach the goal of vaccinating all eligible people in our community.
Since December 2020, these vaccines have been approved for use under emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA, an authorization based on evidence of high protection from symptomatic disease and rare serious side effects in 2 month follow up of 30,000 people in rigorous randomized controlled clinical trials. The use of vaccines under these EUAs in hundreds of millions of people has demonstrated their strong protection from hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Importantly, this real-world experience, as well as longer-term follow up of study cohorts, shows no major safety concerns, and an outstanding safety profile. FDA officials have been doing the highly detailed review of Pfizer’s application for full approval of their vaccine since May 1, and have recently suggested that they plan to make a decision on this application in the coming weeks, perhaps before Labor Day; Moderna will likely follow shortly thereafter. With the enormous body of data regarding safety and efficacy in hand, it is exceedingly likely that the FDA will grant full approval of the Pfizer vaccine. This full approval will provide the endorsement that many have been waiting for to provide assurance that this vaccine is both effective and safe.
With this background, in light of the major threat from the Delta variant, with the clear safety and efficacy of these vaccines, and with full FDA approval anticipated very soon, I am writing now to inform you that The Rockefeller University is making vaccination against the SARS-CoV-2 virus mandatory for all Rockefeller faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, students, and our Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) employees. Within two weeks of full FDA approval of one or more vaccines, everyone will need to have received at least a first dose of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that has full FDA approval or emergency use authorization (Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson), and must complete the full vaccination cycle (two doses of or Pfizer or Moderna, or one dose of Johnson and Johnson) within 6 weeks of full FDA approval of one or more of these vaccines. A reasonable estimate of these deadlines is September 15 for a first vaccine dose and October 13 for a second vaccine dose. To underscore the importance of vaccination for our community, I note that in just the last week, 6 members of our community were diagnosed with COVID-19; 5 of these people are in the small group of people that remains unvaccinated. With the high level of the extremely infectious virus currently in NYC, I urge everyone who is not yet vaccinated not to wait and to get vaccinated as soon as possible to get protection.
In taking this action, we are far from alone. With overwhelmingly positive clinical data continuing to mount, a growing chorus of institutions has announced vaccine mandates in anticipation of full FDA approval. Mandates have been announced by more than 600 colleges and universities, including all of our peer research institutions, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UCSF, Yale, Columbia and Princeton, as well as our neighbors Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Mandates have also been announced for everyone serving in the US military, all staff of the Veterans Administration hospital system, and a rapidly expanding number of health care systems nationally. In addition, a growing number of the largest companies in the U.S., including Google, United Airlines, Facebook and Walmart have announced vaccine mandates. And in New York, the state is mandating vaccination for all state employees, and NYC is mandating vaccination for all employees of indoor restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues, as well as their patrons. There is broad consensus that preventing infection in the workplace is critical to maintaining a safe environment for workers and promoting public health.
Some of you may wish to apply for an exemption from the vaccine requirement. These can be requested for specific medical reasons that could make vaccination unsafe, or for sincerely held religious beliefs. You can find information on how to proceed here.
Lastly, it is worth noting that virtually all of us have already received a large number of vaccines with very rare serious adverse events. These include many childhood vaccines that were required for attending school or for immigration, such as vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and polio. Widespread vaccination against these infectious agents is the reason these diseases are no longer the scourge of children that they were in the first half of the 20th century. Many younger and older members of our community have also received vaccines that protect against bacterial meningitis, chickenpox and pneumococcal pneumonia, and many have been vaccinated against hepatitis B and human papilloma virus. Thus, getting vaccines are nothing new for us; all of these vaccines have gone through the same rigorous approval process as the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and have proven safe. Because of these vaccines we have individually and collectively contributed to the winning the battle against these infectious diseases, which has made them very rare in the U.S. What distinguishes the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines from nearly all the others we have taken (especially for those of us born after 1960), is that the COVID-19 vaccines are not being given to maintain protection of the general population from a disease that rarely occurs in our communities. The COVID-19 vaccines are being given to protect each of us from an immediate clear and present danger of infection and its potentially very serious consequences, and also to prevent us from propagating a chain of infection in the midst of a global pandemic. There surely have not been more compelling reasons to get a vaccination in our lifetime, or perhaps in anyone’s lifetime. I hope that everyone who has not already been fully vaccinated will do so as soon as possible. Don’t wait! We all have an important role to play in fighting this virus. I greatly appreciate your continued great efforts and goodwill as we continue to pursue our collective mission of science for the benefit of humanity.
With all best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University