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April 14, 2020, 12:15 p.m. EDT

Sharpest New York minds join in quest to find a cure for the coronavirus

Scientists at Rockefeller University are among those seeking a remedy to coronavirus

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By Ellis Henican


Rockefeller University
Paul Bieniasz is a world-renowned virologist at Rockefeller University.

Calling all recovered COVID-19 patients. Some of America’s top research scientists need you.

And what reason could be more urgent than this? They’re hoping you can help them find a vaccine, a drug or some other treatment before this killer disease wipes out thousands or millions more.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve eliminated every other aspect of our research and focused entirely on SARS-CoV-2,” the novel coronavirus behind COVID-19.

That’s Paul Bieniasz, a world-renowned virologist at Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s East Side. With his wife and longtime research partner, Theodora Hatziioannou, the 52-year-old British-born scientist spent decades unlocking the deadly secrets inside the HIV virus that causes AIDS. That’s on hold now. At their busy lab and at other top labs around the world, it’s all coronavirus all the time.


Rockefeller University
Theodora Hatziioannou

This global effort is the only thing that can stop a second wave of infections and let the rest of us head safely outside. And it’s only fitting that so much of this lifesaving work is happening in the hottest of hot spots that is New York, at premier research institutions like Columbia, Cornell and Rockefeller universities. “When something like this happens, it’s all hands on deck to try and tackle it,” Bieniasz said as he pulled himself briefly from his virology lab. “I can’t help but feel a sense of personal responsibility. Things that might normally bother a scientist, like competition and credit-—we put all that stuff aside and get on with the problem at hand.”

These crazy days, that means racing down several paths simultaneously.

One of the more immediately promising involves the neutralizing antibodies that float in the plasma of recovered patients. The hope is that these antibodies might help the next wave of victims fight infection—and might even protect frontline health-care workers from getting infected in the first place. But not all plasmas are created equal. They need to be measured and sorted out.

Related: These 21 companies are working on coronavirus treatments or vaccines — here’s where things stand

“What we are finding,” Bieniasz said, “is a very, very large variation in the amount of neutralizing antibodies in people who have recovered. There are some people whose plasma is very potent and some whose plasma is virtually inactive.”

So which is which? “It’s something you’d want to know before treating people.”

That’s where the recovering patients come in. As Bieniasz’s twitter feed pleads: “For those in the New York area who have recovered from #COVID19 and would like to contribute to finding new treatments: Phone: 1-800-RUCARES (1-800-782-2737). E-mail: RUCARES@rockefeller.edu.” Need extra incentive? “Compensation and parking are provided,” notes the accompanying brochure.

Also read: Testing for COVID-19 antibodies could be a ‘game changer’ for the economy but it’s still too early to tell

“The best donors are likely to be those people with the highest amounts of neutralizing antibodies,” Bieniasz said.

The married researchers are collaborating with Michel Nussenzweig, who heads Rockefeller’s molecular immunology laboratory and hopes to clone the antibody genes from the most promising recovered patients. “Once you have the gene cloned, you can make it In large quantities and really scale this up,” Bieniasz said. Nussenzweig used a similar approach with great success against AIDS. He too is seeking cured-from-COVID volunteers.

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