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Donors step up to help YSM respond to COVID-19 needs

Photo by Anthony DeCarlo
Lisa Lattanza
Lisa Lattanza, who led the effort at the height of the pandemic to acquire personal protective equipment for caregivers, stands next to a shipment delivered to Yale West Campus.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, the Yale community has acted quickly and generously to support the university’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, with many individuals and groups coming forward to contribute not only with funds, but with vital supplies. Now that the coronavirus has become an enduring, and evolving, threat to public health, many continue to support the sustained action that Yale must take to combat the virus in New Haven, and around the world.

“This is the worst enemy the world has faced in 70 years, and it is ruthless,” said entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, MPhil ’87, MS ’87, PhD ’91, as the emergency was beginning early in the spring. “But we know the enemy, and we can defeat it by supporting each other in our generation’s finest hour,” said Rothberg, a scientist and founder of multiple life science and medical device companies that include Butterfly Network, the maker of the world’s first handheld whole-body ultrasound scanner. He and his wife, Bonnie E. Gould Rothberg, MD ’94, PhD ’09, MPH ’05, FACP, an oncology hospitalist working on the frontlines of patient care at Smilow Cancer Hospital during the pandemic, were early contributors to Yale’s effort to address the pandemic with a $2 million gift in April. The gift has aided Yale’s ongoing clinical and research response to the coronavirus emergency.

The Ludwig Family Foundation also made a substantial early gift to fund investigators at Yale School of Medicine who were at work on developing vaccines to prevent future outbreaks, as well as treatments for people who already are infected.

“Given the time pressure to find treatments and ultimately prevent COVID-19 and the terrible loss of life and economic disruption that are damaging the well-being of individuals, families, and entire countries,” says Carol Ludwig, MD, president of the foundation, “we felt it was important to lend early support to this group of talented Yale scientists who are working tirelessly to find approaches with the potential to benefit large numbers of people.”

One of the grantees, Richard Bucala, MD, PhD, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Medicine (Rheumatology) and professor of pathology and of epidemiology (microbial diseases), worked on a scalable vaccine for COVID-19 as well as future pandemic viruses. Bucala’s approach was based on a self-amplifying RNA that lends itself to being reproduced on a mass scale and had previously shown promise against viruses.

The Ludwig Family Foundation gift also included funding for research led by Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, in collaboration with Aaron M. Ring, MD, PhD, assistant professor of immunobiology, and Craig B. Wilen, MD, PhD, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and of immunobiology. Their combined laboratories were analyzing components of the blood and immune systems of COVID-positive patients via flow cytometry and other methods.

Ring was also collaborating with Andrew Wang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, on answering the important question of whether a patient’s cells are destroyed directly by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or by powerful elements of the infected person’s immune system triggered by the virus. Additionally, David A. Hafler, MD, chair and William S. and Lois Styles Edgerly Professor of Neurology, and professor of immunobiology, worked to develop immunotherapies to treat COVID-19 with funds from the Ludwig Family Foundation.

The G. Harold & Leila Y. Mathers Foundation generously awarded funds for COVID-19 research to Bucala, as well as Ring’s investigation of methods to take advantage of adaptive immunity to treat and prevent COVID-19. The foundation granted these awards in direct response to the need for research posed by the pandemic and built upon the foundation’s long-standing history of supporting biomedical research at Yale.

Yale researchers also received Fast Grants, which accelerate typically lengthy research grant mechanisms. Expedited within 14 days, Fast Grants were funded by Emergent Ventures, a program at George Mason University. Yale researchers who were funded include Naftali Kaminski, MD, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Endowed Professor of Medicine (Pulmonary); Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; Craig B. Wilen, MD, PhD, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and of immunobiology; Nathan D. Grubaugh, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases); Ellen F. Foxman, MD, PhD, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and of immunobiology; and Stephanie Eisenbarth, MD, PhD, associate professor of laboratory medicine, of immunobiology, and of immunology.

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, was one of the first and most immediate necessities in addressing the pandemic, and the Yale community responded to this urgent need in the form of PPE donations. Lisa L. Lattanza, MD, professor and chair of orthopaedics and rehabilitation, worked tirelessly to lead the effort to collect donations of PPE to Yale. “We need to protect our frontline health care workers first and foremost,” she said. “If they get sick, there is no one to take care of the community.”

PPE donors showed creativity and perseverance in bringing vital supplies to frontline workers in New Haven.

Jiankan Guo, PhD, a research scientist in Yale School of Medicine’s Section of Nephrology, partnered with Zhenzhen Wu, Steve Xu, Shanshan Zeng, and Jason Zhao to lead a KN95/ N95 drive with more than 170 local Chinese-American volunteers to solicit PPE donations in both Connecticut and China. “I realized it was the time to stand up and do something,” said Guo. “I grew up in China and have a lot of connections there, so I reached out to see how I can help.”

Hyung Chun, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of translational research of the Yale Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program, also acted immediately, and the response was similarly quick. After reaching out to colleagues, Chun was able to deliver a donation of about 6,000 gloves, along with disposable gowns and shoe covers, to Yale the following day.

The New Haven-based Yale-China Association assisted an effort by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China and the United States to send 23,000 N95 masks. The Yale Chinese Parents Club donated 108 hazmat suits. In addition, 2,000 surgical masks were donated by employees and families at Boehringer Ingelheim, Danbury Chinese Alliance Church, and the Western Connecticut Chinese Association. Also in April, more than 21,000 KN95 face masks were donated by AMT Consulting in Shanghai, China.

Yale’s long-standing partnerships in China also proved crucial. Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU), one of Yale’s partner institutions, sent a donation of 5,000 N95 masks in April, a time of high demand for PPE.

Lattanza herself, who had just joined the Yale faculty in 2019 from the University of California, San Francisco, resourcefully obtained emergency PPE from her own contacts when Connecticut’s pandemic was at its height. “I worked there for 20 years and reached out to colleagues for help when their COVID burden was so small and ours very large.”

Students and faculty also worked together to found and contribute to grassroots efforts to aid the local community. Meals4Healers, spearheaded by Claudia-Santi F. Fernandes, EdD, LPC, an associate research scientist in General Internal Medicine, mobilized to provide a different kind of aid, as well as gratitude, to Yale frontline workers, while simultaneously supporting local restaurants. Working with New Haven restaurants Tavern on State and Roia, Meals4Healers delivered meals to hospital house staff who were home in isolation, as well as those who were displaced due to COVID-19.

Other school- and community-based groups made masks, raised funds for hospital maintenance and custodial workers, delivered snacks to physicians and nurses caring for COVID-19 patients, delivered essential medications to psychiatric patients who could not reach a pharmacy, and raised essential funds for local households in urgent need.

Yet another aspect of hardship created by the pandemic has been its financial impact on Yale medical students and their families. The YSM class that matriculated in August 2019 was the most economically diverse in the school’s history. Fifteen of its 104 members were the first in their family to attend college. Twenty-nine come from groups underrepresented in medicine.

Within the student body there are exceptionally resilient young people who not only study medicine, but also work to support their extended families, children, or spouses who may have lost their jobs. For many, COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges, as they try to focus on their medical educations.

The School of Medicine Student Assistance Fund covered urgent, unexpected needs for more than a dozen students, including costs of traveling home as well as such essentials as food and medication, taking the boards in a new location, unexpected babysitting costs, and broadband connections to be able to attend classes online. A special gift to the fund came at the height of the COVID-19 emergency from medical school alumni Stephen C. Knight, MD ’90, MBA ’90, and Elizabeth Q. Knight, MD ’94, PhD ’94, who already had been generously supporting student scholarships prior to the pandemic.

The need for members of the Yale community to harness their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and compassion will continue as long as the pandemic does, and Yale School of Medicine is grateful to all donors who have made it possible for the school to construct an effective and sustained response.