Billionaire Michael F. Price, who runs the New York-based MFP Investors hedge fund, has long supported medical research and community health in low-income neighborhoods of New York City. For example, funding from his Price Family Foundation has gone for decades to the Bronx-based Montefiore Medical Center hospital and to the Montefiore-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
But earlier this year, when COVID-19 struck with particular ferocity in New York City, the Bronx was one of the boroughs hit the hardest. That put the doctors at Montefiore right in the center of the crisis, tasked with treating a flood of patients suffering a barely understood disease. As of a few weeks ago, Montefiore had treated and discharged 5,000 COVID-19 patients.
The dire situation in the Bronx also created opportunities to gain expertise and knowledge. Few places in the United States could rival the clinicians at Montefiore for experience with COVID-19, enabling cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge between clinicians and the researchers at Einstein. Price and his foundation recognized this as an opportunity.
“The idea is that Montefiore and Einstein have a unique capability to translate clinical practice into research and research into practice,” said Joanne Duhl, executive director of the Price Family Foundation. So early last month, the foundation committed a matching grant of $1 million to support COVID-19 research at the Einstein College of Medicine.
The grant quickly had one desired effect—within weeks, it drew an additional $1 million in donations, some from first-time donors to the medical school. “One of our objectives was to bring in other people and shine a light on these institutions in the Bronx that are treating patients and doing important, cutting-edge research,” Duhl said.
The new funding enabled research leaders at Einstein to fund several coronavirus-related research projects, said Harris Goldstein, MD, associate dean for scientific resources and professor of pediatrics, and professor of microbiology and immunology at Einstein. “A couple of months ago, no one was focused on COVID,” said Goldstein. Shifting these scientists into coronavirus and COVID-19 projects rapidly would take funding. “That’s where Price was critical.”
The emergency nature of COVID-19 forced institutions and researchers to reorder their priorities—whatever they were working on had to be put on the back burner. COVID-19 was now the pressing issue. This has been true at centers around the country and the world: Researchers with any sort of background relevant to the coronavirus or COVID-19 are now looking for ways to understand and contain the disease, identify treatments, and develop vaccines.
Among the newly launched research projects at Einstein is a double-blind study of convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment. While there are some indications that plasma from COVID-19 survivors could be beneficial to sick patients, double-blind studies are needed to show the therapeutic value more concretely. Another study seeks to understand the overactive and deadly immune response known as a cytokine storm. Another is looking at how artificial intelligence techniques developed for facial recognition systems could be used to scan chest X-rays and more rapidly diagnose COVID-19.
Other studies involve basic research to explore the possibility of tweaking existing drugs to make them effective against COVID-19, said Goldstein, as well as techniques to guide the development of new drugs. Another seeks to understand why most children don’t get sick from coronavirus infection.
Additional studies have already been launched or are in the process of being approved.
When the COVID-19 emergency started earlier in the spring, a chorus of philanthropy, nonprofit and public health officials all warned that the same vulnerable and marginalized populations that had long experienced disproportionate health burdens would be in particular danger as the pandemic spread. This indeed came to pass in the Bronx, one of the poorest sections of New York City, and one with a large Hispanic population. In that neighborhood, explained Duhl, COVID-19 didn’t so much exacerbate a vulnerable situation as reveal it. “It affirmed what we were doing, more so than ever,” she said.