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Rapid Response Fund Supports Researchers During Pandemic

November 24, 2020
by Colin Poitras

When COVID-19 emerged as a global health threat, scientists at the Yale School of Public Health immediately began investigating the virus in an attempt to stop its spread and save lives.

To support that effort, the school established a Rapid Response Fund, a donor-driven initiative that allows urgently needed funding to be delivered quickly to researchers working on the pandemic’s front lines.

The fund was made possible through a variety of donations, including a major $700,000 gift from Yale alum Roger Barnett, Yale College,’86 (Summa Cum Laude), Yale Law, ’89; and prominent West Coast angel investor and business executive Chris Larsen.

Barnett is chairman and CEO of the Shaklee Corporation, the number one natural nutrition and green cleaning products company in the U.S.. He is a prominent supporter of the Yale School of Public Health and currently serves as a member of the Yale School of Public Health Leadership Council and the Yale University President’s Council on International Activities.

Larsen is co-founder of the online mortgage company E-Loan, a publicly traded online lender, and former CEO and current Executive Chairman and co-founder of Ripple, which developed a blockchain-based payment network allowing hundreds of financial institutions around the world to send money instantly. Larsen also co-founded Prosper, a peer-to-peer lending marketplace. During his tenure at E-Loan, Larsen pioneered the open access to credit scores movement by making E-Loan the first company to show consumers their FICO scores.

"Especially in these times, it's on all of us to step up and support those on the front lines,” said Larsen. “Alongside my friend Roger Barnett, I'm proud to support the Yale School of Public Health’s Rapid Response Fund and the imperative work that is being done to understand and combat this deadly virus."

Said Barnett: “There is no greater leverage in public health today than to advance our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19. The Rapid Response Fund is a fantastic opportunity to accelerate leading research at the Yale School of Public Health to create breakthroughs related to COVID, and 100x returns in Public Health. Thank you YSPH.”

Donations to the Rapid Response Fund have enabled nine scientists at the Yale School of Public Health to conduct important research on COVID-19 in attempt to better understand how the virus infects humans, why some people become more seriously ill than others and what interventions may be best suited to stop the disease.

Research supported by the fund to date includes:

  • Understanding the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on low-income, predominantly minority communities.
  • Using state-of-the-art statistical methods to understand the role genes play in COVID-19 infections.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of different contact tracing approaches used in select Connecticut schools to help schools stay open during the pandemic.
  • Identifying metabolic signatures in COVID-19 patients that may predict the severity of their illness.
  • Investigating the impact of COVID-19 on the well-being of vulnerable at-risk adults in order to identify sources of risk and resilience.
  • Examining the psychosocial and health impacts of COVID-19 on people with disabilities.
  • Creating a decision-making tool to optimize public health and economic outcomes when civic leaders implement physical distancing measures to curtail the coronavirus.

Professor Luke Davis said a Rapid Response Fund award allowed him to investigate the timing and effectiveness of contact tracing efforts in New Haven in order to develop best practices.

“Having the resources to hire the people that you need to get your work going right away is really critical,” said Davis, M.D., Ph.D. “We were able to use the funds to hire additional epidemiologists, statisticians, social scientists and a big team of public health students to help analyze the data we are collecting in New Haven.”

The Rapid Response Fund also helped Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Caroline Johnson and Yale School of Medicine Professor Akiko Iwasaki identify a link between a metabolic molecule and COVID-19 that may explain why men tend to get sicker and have worse health outcomes than women once they are infected by the virus.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths climbing across the country, being able to conduct virus research quickly is critical to improving treatments and saving lives.

“Normally this type of experiment would take six months, but we were able to do it in a matter of weeks.” said Johnson, Ph.D. “By publicly sharing our data for other people to use, we feel we were able to contribute to the worldwide effort to investigate the underpinnings of this disease.”

More information about research supported by the Rapid Response Fund can be found on the fund’s website.

Several tri-state area schools including The Chapin School, The Hotchkiss School and Covenant of the Sacred Heart also contributed to the fund in appreciation of Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., visiting them to talk about COVID-19.

Money from the fund is nearly depleted however, and the school is currently seeking donors to support ongoing research as the pandemic continues. The fund is expected to continue after the pandemic subsides where it will be used to support research conducted in response to other global disease outbreaks.

“This fund relies on the generous support of donors who share our commitment to public health and eliminating devastating diseases like COVID-19,” said Vermund. “The return on investment can be immense, both in helping us secure high-impact federal or foundation grants, and ultimately in developing new approaches and strategies in confronting the pandemic and mitigating its health and economic impacts.”

Information about donating to the Rapid Response Fund can be found on the fund’s website.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on November 24, 2020