With the temperatures dropping and daylight hours getting short, it’s clear we are heading toward winter, though the weather continues to be consistently pleasant. Virtually 100% of the campus community is vaccinated, new students are on campus taking classes in person and doing rotations in faculty labs, and seminars and meetings are occurring in person with masks on. And nearly all staff are now coming back to campus. We are welcoming the advent of a “new normal” in our daily routines, and it has been great to begin reconnecting with one another in person.
The global COVID pandemic has continued to evolve, and there are lessons to be learned. Over the summer, research from Rockefeller investigators and others demonstrated that levels of neutralizing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 infection conferred by vaccines wane over time, resulting in breakthrough infections. This led to clinical trials showing that a booster shot gives much higher antibody levels than those achieved with initial vaccination, providing strong protection from symptomatic infection and severe disease. The best evidence for this renewed clinical protection comes from Israel. Because they were one of the first countries to achieve relatively high levels of vaccination, they also saw the waning of antibody levels early and initiated a nationwide booster program in August, just as the Delta variant was emerging there. After a surge of cases through mid-September, cases have plummeted by more than 90% to 5 per hundred thousand per day, and the risk of hospitalization is down by 98% among vaccinated people. Importantly, they have continued mask mandates.
Other countries that have very high vaccination rates and continue with masks and other prevention measures have also done extremely well. For example, after a big spike in cases after the summer Olympics, Japan achieved vaccination in 75% of the population and case levels have dropped ~95% to extremely low levels – 0.1 case per 100,000 people per day.
In contrast, in most of western Europe, high vaccination rates initially drove down case rates, but elimination of mask wearing and other precautions, along with waning effects of vaccines, has resulted in steep increases in case numbers, with accompanying rises in severe disease. For example, Denmark is 76% vaccinated, and when cases declined to 6 per 100,000 in mid-September, all precautions were discontinued nation-wide. Over the next two months, cases increased 10-fold to 60 cases per 100,000, and the death rate from COVID is now the same as NYC, i.e., ~0.1 per 100,000 per day. This has been the pattern in much of Europe, which now is the epicenter of the global pandemic.
Turning to the US, it remains immensely frustrating that we rank roughly 65th in the world for the percentage of population vaccinated, with only 59% of people fully vaccinated. This puts us behind all of Western Europe, much of the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America. The US ranks just behind Hungary, Turkey, and Latvia. Severe COVID continues to be predominantly a disease of the unvaccinated, though waning immunity is an increasing threat to those vaccinated last winter and spring. Case numbers vary widely across the country. Seasonal temperate weather has brought people outdoors in the South, with case levels plummeting to the lowest in the nation (7-13 cases per day per 100,000 across the southeastern border from South Carolina to Texas). Conversely, colder air has driven people indoors in the North, and case numbers have skyrocketed to 58-84 cases per day per 100,000 in the Northeast and northern Midwest. Nonetheless, death rates are no longer directly proportional to case rates, with the level of vaccination now driving the death rate from COVID. Thus Georgia, with one of the country’s lowest vaccine rates (49%) has only 10 cases per 100,000 per day but has 0.34 deaths per 100,000 from COVID per day. In contrast, Vermont, with the highest vaccination rate in the country (72%) has nearly six times as many cases per day per 100,000 (58) as Georgia but has a much lower death rate – only 0.23 deaths per day per 100,000.
Here in NYC, recent city employee and other vaccine and mask mandates, along with recent CDC authorization of vaccinations for children age 5 and up, have resulted in more than 80.5% of adults and 68.4% of the entire population being fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, case numbers have increased 40% in NYC since the last week of October to ~15 cases per 100,000 per day, though hospitalizations and deaths have not increased from levels that are near the lowest in the nation (0.1 deaths per 100,000 per day).
On campus, among employees, we’ve had an increase in cases like the rest of NYC, with 6 new cases in the last 14 days, none of which show evidence of on-campus transmission. In addition, three family members of one of these newly infected people, including two children in the CFC, have been diagnosed, revealing how infectious the Delta variant is. Fortunately, throughout the Delta wave this summer and fall, no one from our community has been hospitalized or had severe COVID.
As mentioned above, the campus community is now virtually 100% vaccinated, and everyone age 5 and older is now eligible for vaccination, providing excellent protection in school. The vaccines have proved to be extremely safe for children as young as 5, and highly effective in preventing infection.
Importantly, given the strong evidence that booster shots markedly increase protection from infection and severe disease, I urge all adults to get a booster shot. The OHS office has vaccines in stock and is giving booster shots and all RU employees are eligible. Get a jab, and keep your immunity high through this critical winter. Protecting ourselves and preventing spread of the coronavirus while maintaining protection against serious disease is going to be critical in the coming months.
There is one other important new piece of COVID news. Clinical trials of Pfizer’s oral anti-SARS-CoV-2 drug show that, when taken within 5 days of symptom onset, the drug has provided 90% protection from severe disease. This will be particularly useful in people who are unvaccinated and those at high risk of severe disease. This drug is not yet approved under emergency use authorization, but it will likely be a major contributor to preventing severe disease this winter. Merck also has an anti-viral drug that was 50% effective in clinical trials that will also be evaluated for authorization in the coming weeks.
Moving on from COVID news (finally!), I hope many of you saw my email this past Wednesday announcing the recruitment of Ashton Murray to be the University’s inaugural chief diversity officer (CDO) and vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, joining Rockefeller’s executive leadership team in January. As I noted, Ashton has broad experience in DEI programming, training, and community engagement, in both academic settings and faith-based organizations. Ashton’s hiring is clearly central to advancing our ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and I know we all look forward to working with him to translate the University’s commitment to diversity into actions that promote a diverse, supportive, and inclusive University culture.
Over the last year, there has been additional progress in this area. Our scientific community has continued to increase the diversity of seminar speakers and to facilitate presentations featuring germane topics such as health disparities, racial disparities in economic outcomes associated with COVID-19, and racism in higher education and the scientific enterprise. A dozen such presentations have taken place in the past year on campus. I’m grateful for the energy so many have put into this issue, especially RiSI members, who have brought speakers to campus, held DEI journal club sessions, and suggested speakers for other seminar series.
Additionally, I note that over the last 5 years the number of people from underrepresented minority groups in our Ph.D. program have increased by 70% and now comprise 19% of our students. I’m grateful to the Dean’s Office, Admissions Committee, and the community for attracting and welcoming these students on campus. In University leadership, the Board of Trustees has continued efforts to increase diversity, and in the last 6 months has elected five new trustees, including three people with diverse ethnic/racial identities and four women. All are leaders in their fields.
In other news, at the November Board meeting, I was thrilled to announce an extraordinary $25 million gift from Trustee Michael Price and his wife Vikki to establish the Price Family Center for the Social Brain at Rockefeller. This ambitious new center, to be co-led by HOLs Winrich Freiwald and Vanessa Ruta, will study the neural basis of social behavior, laying the groundwork for understanding how disorders that impair social behavior arise and can be effectively prevented or treated. Beyond its direct support for science in the labs, the center will also provide funding for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, retreats and seminars.
Since my last update in October, several faculty have been recognized with important distinctions. Cori Bargmann was awarded the Salk Medal for Research Excellence, not only for her remarkable discoveries in neuroscience but also for her leadership accomplishments, including in her present role as head of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Three Rockefeller HOLs, Mary Beth Hatten, Charlie Rice, and Leslie Vosshall, were elected to the National Academy of Medicine in recognition of their accomplishments and ability to provide expert advice to the nation on science and medicine. Seth Darst was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with the Gregori Aminoff Prize in recognition of his work on crystallography. In addition, Tom Sakmar last week received an honorary doctoral degree from the Karolinska Institute. Tom has been a champion of bilateral scientific exchanges between Rockefeller and Karolinska. Congratulations to Cori, Mary Beth, Charlie, Leslie, Seth, and Tom!
Speaking of awards, the Nobel Prize medal and citation received by one of our most brilliant scientists, Günter Blobel, has been donated to the University by Günter’s wife, Laura Maioglio Blobel, and placed on permanent display in the Founder’s Hall lobby. Its display serves as a fitting tribute to a treasured member of the Rockefeller University family.
As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday week, whether you will be traveling, seeing friends, or staying home, I wish you a pleasant holiday. 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