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Reflections on the COVID-19 Crisis and How Wistar is Making a Difference

April 3, 2020

Dr. Dario Altieri, Wistar president and CEO, gets candid about our response as a country to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the Institute is advancing scientific solutions to protect those at the frontlines.

The streets of University City Philadelphia are empty, few cars drive around and the Penn Campus is eerily deserted, but The Wistar Institute remains open. Designated as a “life-sustaining” business in Governor Wolf’s recent order, the oldest independent research institute in the U.S. is adjusting to life in the era of COVID-19 and lives up to its century-old mission of putting research to work for human health. Darien Sutton, Media Relations & Communications manager, caught up with Dr. Dario C. Altieri, Wistar president and CEO, for a “virtual” fireside chat about his take on the coronavirus crisis and what Wistar can do to help.

Sutton: I checked with Pete, our director of Facilities, and there are about 70 people coming to Wistar any given day since we started social distancing. It appears you are one of them. How does it feel?

Altieri: It feels great. Being here every day says that we are doing the job that we are supposed to do, and people expect us to do. Plus, since we implemented social distancing, no in-person meetings and no gatherings, I got to ditch the suit and tie for jeans and hoodie, and that feels even better.

Sutton: What’s going on with COVID-19? Why is this so much more dangerous than, say, the flu?

Altieri: I am not sure we know everything about this particular coronavirus strain. Clinical data, mostly coming out of the Wuhan experience, suggest that it spreads more efficiently than the flu and has a higher case fatality rate. It also seems that our own response to the infection is different: we seem to generate a far less robust antiviral transcriptional signature. Regardless, most people have mild or no symptoms. The problem is that a small percentage of patients develop acute respiratory failure, and, unfortunately, can have a very grim prognosis. This is the worst-case scenario that we are seeing in the national news: tens of thousands of patients with acute respiratory failure flooding ERs around the country and major metropolitan areas.

Sutton: Are we prepared?

Altieri: No, not at all. We should have done a better job studying more closely what was going on in Asian countries in January. We’ve missed both the good — how to control the spread of the virus, because it can be done, and the bad — how acute and deadly the most severe cases can be. This is not about politics, but it appears that we, as a society, have underestimated the threat, didn’t prepare with reliable testing, and didn’t take seriously the chance that our health system could become overwhelmed. A health system that even under “normal” circumstances must run at close to full capacity. It’s unacceptable that we, as a nation, are at the point of scrambling to find masks and gloves.

Sutton: Okay, that’s the bad news. Is there good news?

Altieri: Well, there are a lot of people working the numbers right now. There is still no approved drug or vaccine, but a lot of clinical trials have opened around the world. They are testing different strategies to shut down how the virus gets in the cell, prevent it from copying its genome or alleviate the acute cytokine response that seems to drive a negative outcome in patients with respiratory failure. And then of course there are vaccine trials that launched with different approaches. I am hopeful that something will hit, and soon. It doesn’t have to be a magic bullet, but something meaningful to protect those on the front lines and the most at-risk population.

Sutton: What is Wistar’s part in all this?

Altieri: For a century, we have been at the forefront of vaccine research, and this is no different now. The efforts in our Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center tackle many aspects of the COVID-19 emergency and Dr. David Weiner’s DNA-based vaccine is scheduled to enter trial right here in Philadelphia later this month. Of course, we don’t know if any of these will work and make a difference in people’s lives. But I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of this work, not just of the scientists but of everyone who is here to support them. It is this sense of community, which is all about the science, that makes Wistar special.

Sutton: But Wistar is almost empty, can we really do it?

Altieri: Of course, we can. Our top priority is to make sure that everyone here is safe and healthy. And stays that way. In just a week, we reconfigured the entire organization to work remotely and everyone is chipping in, things are getting done with the same pace, efficiency and passion as ever. It is the best support we can give to our laboratories that are racing to defeat COVID-19.

Sutton: Any last parting thoughts?

Altieri: At some point, things will get better. I don’t know when or how many good people around the world COVID-19 will take. But we will get past the critical point. I just hope that when we finally do, we will not go back to live our lives like nothing happened. I hope we will remember our errors and shortcomings and learn from them. So that we can make the right investments, support the science, develop the medicines of the future and protect our communities. Maybe it’s time to build one less aircraft carrier and a few more hospitals. If there is one thing that we learned from this spring of 2020 is that our lives can be upended very quickly and very dramatically. We just need to be better prepared. For when the next pandemic comes.