As the crisp sunny weather and recent cool rains have demonstrated, fall has arrived in New York City. I hope everyone had a good summer and is settling in for the new academic year. This summer provided new and undeniable evidence that climate change has arrived, with extreme heat, insane wildfires in the west, and torrential rains from the Gulf of Mexico up through New England, and in Europe and Asia. Within two weeks, NYC twice set the all-time record for most rain in one hour, topping out at 3.15 inches in one hour on September 1. The previous storm dumped 7.5 inches in total in a few hours, causing flash floods in low-lying parts of the city, including the FDR drive and low areas on campus. Fortunately, flood gates installed following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 succeeded in preventing the FDR flooding from entering the adjacent Power House and doing major damage to our infrastructure. Special thanks to Alex Kogan and his teams in Custodial, Plant Ops, and Housing, who spent the night responding to water emergencies across campus.
The beginning of fall also marks 18 months since the COVID pandemic hit NYC in March 2020. Over the summer, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which is much more transmissible than previous variants, swept across the globe, wreaking havoc. After seeing daily case levels in NYC plummet to a low of 172 per day mid-June, they started rising again by the end of June as the Delta variant arrived, steadily increasing to a high of 2,000 cases per day in early August, and staying around this level until starting to come down over the last 10 days to about 1,400 cases per day currently. The peak of the Delta wave was, fortunately, only a third of the peak last winter, likely a combination of the growing number of people vaccinated (now 64% of all NYC residents, 75% of all adults), a relatively high fraction of people with prior infection, which provides some protection, and more time outdoors in the summer. The impact of vaccination has proved to be profound. With 75% of the adult population of NYC fully vaccinated, only 2.7% of all COVID-related deaths during the Delta variant wave have been in the vaccinated population, indicating a >95% reduction in likelihood of death, as well as risk of hospitalization, among vaccinated people. Similar data has been reported across the country. Lastly, people in states with the 10 highest vaccination rates have about one fifth the death rate from COVID-19 compared to those in the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates. These remarkable data provide extremely strong evidence of the efficacy of the vaccines, and their safety profiles are extremely good as well. I urge everyone to make every effort to get your friends, family, and colleagues vaccinated. This is our best path to ending the global pandemic.
Here on campus, we went six weeks in June through mid-July with zero new cases in our community, and enjoyed getting together without masks again. We then saw a significant rise in cases as Delta arrived, with 34 cases since mid-July. The good news is that none of these individuals have needed hospitalization, including a 90-year-old member of our community who was fully vaccinated. Case numbers have been coming down in the last month, with only one new case in our community in the last week. This is attributable to continued diligence in wearing masks and avoiding crowds indoors, and to having extremely high vaccination rates on campus. To this point, >95% of our campus has been fully vaccinated since July, and in response to our vaccine mandate announced in August, by the deadline of September 15, 99.4% of our employees and trainees have had at least 1 dose and are on track to have complete vaccination regimens by mid-October, leaving only a handful of individuals who have applied for medical or religious exemptions who are awaiting adjudication. Similar mandates across NYC are approaching comparable results among teachers, health care workers, government employees, and employees of many large companies. All of this is contributing to making our environment safer.
Looking ahead, we have seen extremely high case and death levels in the South this summer, with further spread of high case and death rates into West Virginia and Kentucky and northern states across the Midwest and West. In each of these states, hospitalizations and deaths are hugely enriched among people who are unvaccinated. A major question is whether we will see another surge in cases in the Northeast this winter as activity moves indoors. Emergency use authorization of RNA vaccines in children ages 5 – 12 is expected in about a month. Vaccination of these children will increase their protection in the school setting and will help prevent spread of infection, particularly to children under age 5. Additionally, booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine have recently been shown to be safe and reduce rates of infection hospitalization and death when neutralizing antibody levels have dropped. They have been approved and are rolling out now in high-risk populations, with booster shots for Moderna and J&J vaccines likely to follow soon. I encourage everyone to follow the science and get your children vaccinated and get a booster shot as they become available. The clinical trial data has indicated that adverse effects for the third dose of the Pfizer vaccine is similar to what has been seen with the other two doses. More information on scheduling booster shots for Rockefeller employees can be found here.
The other major threat is that another new variant will emerge that is more infectious and/or more virulent than Delta. The best way to prevent this is to get the infection level to very low levels worldwide to minimize the chance of such variants emerging. More than six billion doses of vaccine have been administered worldwide this year, with 46% of the world population receiving at least 1 dose. This is a truly amazing achievement. For example, Pfizer alone has produced 1.2 billion doses so far, and has scaled up even further to produce another 6 billion doses by the end of 2022. Astra Zeneca is likely to achieve similar production of their vaccine. For these reasons there is optimism that there will be sufficient supply to vaccinate the world’s population in the next year, though the logistics of getting doses into arms will remain a challenge to overcome.
I am pleased to note that Rockefeller’s contributions to COVID-19 science continue to provide important insights. Over the summer, the labs of HOLs Michel Nussenzweig and Paul Bieniasz published another important paper in Nature, showing that infection with SARS-CoV-2 followed by mRNA vaccine provides particularly broad neutralizing antibodies and high levels of these. This finding provides hope that a third dose of these vaccines may provide similar effects, with broader protection against viral variants and longer lasting immunity. Also, the lab of Jean-Laurent Casanova published papers in Science Immunity showing that a small fraction of the population, which increases with age, makes antibodies that neutralize type 1 interferons. These antibodies impair the initial response to infections by viruses like SARS-CoV-2, and are found in about 20% of patients with severe COVID-19. This discovery has implications for early identification of people who are at particularly high risk for severe disease.
With our community fully vaccinated, we have been able to relax some of the social distancing protocols in place to prevent spread of the virus, provided that face masks are still being worn. Since August 15, groups of fully vaccinated individuals can meet indoors without six-foot distancing requirements, meaning that conference rooms have had their capacity restrictions increased. As an additional alternative, two outdoor meeting areas have been established in tents located outside the Abby Dining Room and the Weiss Research Building. These will be available through the end of October, weather permitting, and may be booked for laboratory or department meetings using the university’s room reservations system. IT has provisioned outdoor WiFi in the Philosophers Garden and the Peggy Rockefeller Plaza, which includes coverage of the tented venues. This expansion of the campus wireless network will enable our community to work and communicate more effectively while enjoying our campus during this most temperate time of year in New York City. As a reminder, participation in the RU Strong weekly testing program and the RU Healthy self-assessment program are required for all employees coming to campus.
Turning to other news, it is a pleasure to announce both the 2021 and 2022 recipients of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, the preeminent international prize for women scientists founded by the late Paul Greengard. The 2021 prize, presented at a virtual event yesterday, was awarded to Pamela J. Björkman, a professor at Cal Tech who solved the structure of the type 1 major histocompatibility complex protein, HLA-A2. This breakthrough revealed how the MHC presents antigens from intracellular proteins to T-cell receptors, activating an immune response when non-self antigens are recognized. Björkman continues to use crystallography, along with cryo-electron microscopy and biochemistry, to study the atomic structures of proteins that mediate the immune system’s interactions with viruses such as HIV and, more recently, SARS-CoV-2.
The 2022 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize will be awarded to Katalin Karikó in recognition of her discovery, made as a faculty member at University of Pennsylvania, of how to prevent synthetic RNA from activating the innate immune system. This work provided the essential foundation for mRNA vaccines and therapeutics, most critically enabling development of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that were developed in record time to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. With her colleague Drew Weissman, she discovered that a nucleotide modification called pseudouridine, which is abundant in tRNAs, can prevent activation of the innate immune system by synthetic mRNA, allowing these mRNAs to direct synthesis of viral proteins for vaccines or therapies. These vaccines have already saved many hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S., and countless more worldwide. Dr. Karikó will be presented the prize at a ceremony to be held next year.
There are also several honors of our own faculty to celebrate this fall. First and foremost, congratulations are in order for our three newest HHMI investigators: Daniel Kronauer, Daniel Mucida, and Vanessa Ruta. These three exceptional scientists are each doing amazing science and are highly deserving of this wonderful recognition. Daniel K’s lab is studying the molecular and evolutionary basis of social behavior in ants; Daniel M’s lab studies the complex interactions of the gut microbiome, the intestinal epithelium, the immune system, and gut-brain neural circuits that allow discrimination between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria in the gut and the appropriate immune response. Vanessa’s lab studies the mechanisms regulating conditional behavioral responses to environmental stimuli as well as the structural biology and mechanism of activation of insect odorant receptors. They join an elite group of 280 investigators—18 of whom are at Rockefeller—who are recognized for their outstanding accomplishments and trajectories. The fact that a quarter of our HOLs now receive direct, sustained support from HHMI for their research is a testament to the excellence of our faculty and the tremendous contributions of all who support our science. I’m also pleased to recognize Leslie Vosshall’s new role with HHMI, where she was recently named vice president and chief scientific officer. Leslie is a fantastic choice for this role, which oversees the organization’s scientific portfolio including the HHMI investigator program and its prestigious fellowship program. Leslie is an exceptionally innovative scientist and a thoughtful leader who will ensure that HHMI’s scientific programs continue to thrive. We are glad that she will continue as an HOL and maintain her lab here at Rockefeller. Congratulations to Leslie, Daniel, Daniel, and Vanessa!
I’m also thrilled to recognize Luka Mesin, a research associate in the Victora lab, who has been named a Blavatnik Regional Award Finalist in the life sciences category. This recognition goes to outstanding postdoctoral scientists from academic research institutions across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Luka is being honored for using novel techniques to better understand how immune cells mature and evolve to create antibodies to fight off pathogens. Congratulations Luka!
While on the topic of recognition of our science, this year’s U-Multirank survey of international research universities has been announced, and for the seventh consecutive year Rockefeller has received the top score out of more than 1,900 institutions in a measure of research impact based on the frequency with which our research publications have been cited by others. Rockefeller continues to be #1 in the percentage of our papers that are among the most cited papers in their fields. This is a reminder of the impact that our research has in the scientific world, and our entire community can share in the pride of what we achieve every day.
Before closing, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to the 35 new students who have joined our graduate program this fall. This large class results from a remarkably high acceptance of offers to come to Rockefeller this year, underlining the recognition of what a great institution this is for Ph.D. training. It is always a thrill to see new faces on campus. I know each of you will make great contributions to science and humanity here and long into the future, and we all look forward to following your career development.
Please stay safe, be well, and continue to take care of one another.
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University