Lukas Flippo, Staff Photographer
When the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm, Yale scientists were at the forefront of national efforts to understand the science of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and establish public health guidelines to reduce the virus’ transmission.
The COVID-19 virus has had a significant impact on the class of 2021’s experience at Yale College — the University implemented remote classes for the end of their junior year and all of their senior year. The University itself has had 916 total positive COVID-19 cases since Aug. 1, 2020. Many Yale scientists and public health experts shifted the focus of their research to contribute to working knowledge about the virus during the pandemic, and University epidemiologists used past research and experience to educate the public on ways to contain the outbreak. Yale researchers also scrambled to develop COVID-19 testing and testing protocols.
“This is a new virus that never appeared in humans before a few months ago, and we’re racing against it,” Ellen Foxman, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, said in April 2020. “Tests that would normally take two to three months to develop, we’re trying to develop in two to three weeks.”
A team of virologists at Yale New Haven Hospital, led by professor of laboratory medicine Marie-Louise Landry, successfully replicated the COVID-19 test in the beginning of March 2020. This has allowed more individuals in New Haven County to access a faster diagnosis.
Associate research scientist in epidemiology Anee Wyllie investigated the use of saliva samples in COVID-19 testing to increase hospitals’ testing capacity. The saliva samples save time and reduce the health risk for healthcare workers when swabbing patient’s noses.
Wyllie’s study, released in April of 2020, found that detection of the virus in saliva samples was more sensitive and produced fewer false negatives than tests performed through nasopharyngeal swabs.
This technology, called SalivaDirect, led to Yale’s collaboration with the NBA. Robby Sikka, vice president of basketball performance and technology for the Minnesota Timberwolves, contacted the Yale researchers to form a partnership with the NBA, in which NBA players would help verify the saliva-based test. The project, launched by the Grubaugh lab and led by assistant professor of epidemiology Nathan Grubaugh, was called “SWISH” — the Surveillance with Improved Screening and Health study.
Because NBA players were not keen on testing using nasopharyngeal swabs daily, the NBA saw saliva tests as a way to increase regular testing capacity, especially in a profession that does not allow for social distancing or mask-wearing. The partnership allowed for NBA players, coaches and staff to supplement their required testing schedule with an extra step that would aid SalivaDirect in becoming available for public use.
The study involved 12 to 16 NBA teams that opted to participate in the study and were de-identified in the data so that Yale researchers did not know of the individuals or teams they were testing. The players who enrolled in the study would still receive nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs every other day due to standard NBA protocol, but would also provide a saliva sample to the research booth afterwards. Quest Diagnostics performed testing on the nasal and oral swabs, and the saliva samples were sent to New Haven to compare SalivaDirect results with the swab test results. The study was funded by the NBA.
Another University contribution to COVID-19 research came from Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health Saad Omer, who developed an algorithm to assess the local spread of COVID-19.
Omer’s algorithm used travel data, as well as information about the commuting locations of faculty, students and staff to estimate the spread of the virus within the Yale community. This helped University administrators like University President Peter Salovey make the decision to move classes online for the spring 2020 semester.
Early on in Connecticut’s COVID-19 case trajectory, Yale’s COVID-19 Lab Working Group used genome analysis to understand how the coronavirus spread to New Haven. Mutations in the virus’s replication of each person’s genetic material allowed scientists to infer relationships between outbreaks, according to Mary Petrone GRD ’23, a doctoral candidate in the Grubaugh Lab.
Petrone was co-author on a study that revealed that nine early COVID-19 cases in Connecticut came from domestic, rather than international sources, with seven of these cases coming from Washington State. The study’s results informed Connecticut’s domestic travel restrictions.
“An uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak in one state can seed an outbreak in another,” Petrone said. “Each outbreak across the country must be controlled before the U.S. epidemic can be controlled.”
Director of the Keck Biotechnology Resource Laboratory Shrikant Mane and Associate Director of Microarray Research Guilin Wang, two researchers at the Yale Center for Genome Analysis, sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 using samples from infected hospital patients last year. Their study helped determine what makes certain individuals more prone to developing more debilitating symptoms, informing new therapies.
Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology, shifted her lab’s focus from infectious diseases like herpes simplex virus and endogenous retroviruses to determining sex differences in immune response to COVID-19 or profiling the infection of the virus in neurons. Iwasaki’s lab found that people with severe symptoms had an elevated viral load in comparison to those who were asymptomatic. Her lab also found that people who were infected with COVID-19 not only produced antibodies in response to the spike protein, but also produced auto-antibodies that attack the host’s immune system.
Apart from her work at the University, Iwasaki also helps dispel COVID-19-related misinformation on Twitter and by creating informational videos on YouTube.
“It’s been busy, but a rewarding experience for me,” Iwasaki said. “One of the worst myths is about the vaccine causing infertility in women. That’s been hopefully debunked already … essentially what that claim came from is based on very, very weak science, saying that there is some similarity between the COVID-19 spike protein and the syncytin-1 protein, which is important to make the placenta.”
Finally, to address ventilator shortages in healthcare systems around the world, a Yale group led by professor of anesthesia and biomedical engineering Laura Niklason developed a new system that allows a single ventilator to be split among multiple patients. This system, called PreVentS, or Pressure Regulated Ventilator Splitting, uses a closed circuit that enables ventilator pressure to be controlled for three patients at a time.
New CDC guidelines assert that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a mask in any setting, except where required by federal and local regulations.