Medical professionals Kevin Graepel ’11, Christine Laine ’83, and Jack Syage ’76 shared perspectives on the development of vaccines for COVID-19 in a Zoom event on Nov. 10. The event was moderated by Dianne-Lee Ferguson ’22 and Alyssa Bonanno ’21, and attended by both students and alumni. The event was coordinated by the Career Center’s Connect Team in health professions.
At the beginning of the event, the panelists shared how their experiences at Hamilton had prepared them for their careers. Syage, now an entrepreneur and CEO of ImmunogenX, spoke warmly of his time on campus and remarked that “amazingly enough, as you go through life and go through your career, you start running into Hamilton alumni who you never knew.”
Similar positivity was echoed by Laine and Graepel, who said that at Hamilton he “fell in love with the intellectual process of research” and cited the advice of a Career Center advisor as influential in determining the trajectory of his professional life. For Laine, who was a writing and biology double major, a Hamilton degree gave her the ability to embrace unplanned opportunities that she said “ended up being a really good fit” for her. In addition to becoming a physician, she is editor of the leading scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
In answering a range of questions about COVID-19, the panelists applied their professional knowledge to issues surrounding the pandemic. Graepel, a Ph.D./M.D. graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he is known as “something of a coronavirus expert,” told attendees about his experience working in a lab that had predicted such an outbreak years in advance. “What we didn’t know,” he said, “was what characteristics that next virus might have and how that might affect its ability to spread through a population.” Graepel is a pediatrics resident at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Once that virus did erupt earlier this year, Graepel noted that “what seemed to be fundamentally different about [COVID-19] was this quite high rate of asymptomatic infection, and spread from asymptomatic individuals, that required us to flip the playbook.”
Laine pointed out another unprecedented effect of the pandemic — that the public was both more informed and misinformed about the virus than is typical for health crises. “Some of the messages are quite subtle ... monoclonal antibodies help, they harm; Remdesivir is good, it isn’t so good — it gets very confusing, even when you’re in the profession,” she said.
Drawing on his experience with clinical trials, Syage broke down the steps that would have to be taken before a coronavirus vaccine could be offered to the public. The first phase is human trials, which use a small population to determine the product’s safety. From there “efficacy tests” are brought in, Syage explained, at which point “some sort of biological signature” is measured. Finally, the population size must be elevated “to the higher numbers that you need to statistically show that it’s safe and effective,” he said.
This final phase is where Syage placed the current clinical trials taking place for a COVID-19 vaccine. All the same, he noted that “it’s not about a drug that works in a clinical trial, it’s about a drug that you can manufacture for a world population ... so there are still challenges.” Syage also seemed to take an optimistic view of the new Pfizer vaccine, calling it a “very good outcome.”