By Jessica W. ’22
As 2021 begins, we are still in a severe stage of the pandemic, and many cities, including Boston, are proclaiming the frontline workers of COVID-19 as city heroes. Frontline health workers and Dr. Fauci were also popular candidates for Time Magazine’s “2020 Person of the Year.” This highlights the dramatic impact of the pandemic on our global society and also acknowledges the dedicated efforts of medical professionals in their fierce battle against the infectious disease. Locally, Massachusetts has experienced an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases, and the governor has issued state-wide protocols as we revert to Phase 2. These events raise the critical question, when and how can we return to normal? The recent good news is that the FDA-approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered to healthcare workers, but their impacts and efficacy remain an uncertainty for many. The Banner sought insight from expert immunologists in the Longwood medical area. On December 10, we were fortunate enough to interview Dr. Gyongyi Szabo, an internationally renowned physician-scientist and the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School.
What is your experience as the CAO of BIDMC, and what are some hospital’s efforts in combating COVID-19, especially with the current rise in cases?
Several weeks ago, we reestablished the command center that was in place. We essentially changed the entire operation and the logistics of running the hospital to be very nimble and ready for accommodating the needs of the increasing number of patients. We are now in the process of potentially reorganizing clinics and units to accommodate the number of patients if the in-patient numbers increase. Currently, everything is under control, but we are certainly at a point where we are stretching close to our capacity. We are operating with the caution of protecting our workers and protecting our patients. We are very stringent about the regulations of social distancing, using masks, and having hand hygiene.
What is your projection on how society will proceed with this pandemic, and how the recent development of the COVID-19 vaccine will affect us? Do you think this vaccine is the cure that will bring society back to normal?
In addition to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we are also very excited about the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which was developed based on the design of one of the investigators here at BIDMC, Dr. Dan Barouch, who is a virologist and vaccine expert. There will be multiple vaccines coming out that will help society. The problem is that the vaccine is not going to be available right away, as we would also need tremendous volumes to make it available to everyone. It also takes time to administer these vaccines. I’m worried about the time between now and the point when the general public can have access to the vaccines, because there’s going to be at least another 4-6 months, if not longer. During that period, we will need to be patient and continue all the precautions that we have done throughout the summer and even before because right now, optimism and reality seem to have discrepancies, so we will require a lot of discipline.
Do you think there will be future unexpected pandemics, and besides social distancing, is the RNA-based vaccine going to equip us for additional future threats besides COVID?
If you look at the history of humankind and our relation to other biological entities, then yes, it is very likely that there will be other viruses, most likely viruses that come up as infectious and novel for the human race. Whether it’s going to be two years from now or thirty years from now, we don’t know. I think there is a huge lesson that we are learning from COVID-19, but that may or may not be enough to prevent any future pandemics. Hopefully, we can prevent the pandemic component, but certainly not an epidemic. Many things are rapidly changing in our society with global travel, which was a major component in the spread of this virus, and it is unlikely that that is going to stop. We just need to be better equipped and prepared. One positive aspect of this is that the RNA-based vaccines do work, which proves a tremendous accomplishment for medicine and biological research that now provides us with another platform for acting fast and developing vaccines in an accelerated manner.
The groundbreaking basic science studies have paved the road for the fast development of the RNA vaccine, which otherwise would have taken years to develop. What inspired you to work in biomedical research?
As a physician-scientist, one can ask questions and tackle questions that otherwise are unknown, and help to get answers that move medicine forward. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of appreciating that because we knew that this is an infectious virus, but we didn’t know exactly how it spreads, what are the parameters, and what is the disease itself. It’s created a tremendous opportunity for both physicians and scientists at the bedside or at the bench to work together and learn as we go along. One thing we established very quickly at BIDMC was, for example, bio-specimen collections. We realized that if we have blood samples from patients who have come down with COVID-19, then we can take those samples, bring them back to the lab, learn about how the immunology or how the host responds to the virus, and use that as a potential way of predicting further disease outcomes or potential therapies. I think it’s fascinating and incredibly rewarding to be a part of that kind of major journey.
Could you share advice for Winsor students who are interested in medicine and biomedical research?
The best way of moving on this intent is to have some experience. I have been hosting high school and college students in my laboratory for many years. I believe this helps people to either discover a passion for science once they experience it, or to find out that perhaps what they imagined differs from reality. It’s very important, especially early on before one makes choices regarding their career, to have these experiences. That’s another area that BIDMC has been accommodating in the past, and certainly in the future. We want to make sure that we provide opportunities for students to come in and volunteer or visit. We would be more than happy to work with interested students at Winsor!