Stanford’s president, provost and dean of the School of Medicine talk about addressing the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic

During the one-hour conversation, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell provided updates on the university’s response to the pandemic. Special guest Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, gave an update on how the biomedical enterprise has been addressing the challenges of COVID-19.

In an online conversation with the Stanford community Wednesday, April 29, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell shared the virtual stage with Lloyd Minor, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, who had been invited to discuss the work of Stanford Medicine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The one-hour program began with a 30-minute question-and-answer session in which Tessier-Lavigne posed questions to Minor. During the second half-hour, Tessier-Lavigne and Drell addressed the community separately, and then all three participants took questions from the virtual listeners. A recording of the program is available here (requires SUNet ID).

Developments at Stanford Medicine

Tessier-Lavigne praised the work of Stanford Medicine in its research and patient care and then interviewed Minor on a series of topics, beginning with developments in testing.

Moderator Matthew Tiews, Medical School Dean Lloyd Minor and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne during a conversation with the community on April 29. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Minor said that shortly after the sequence of the novel coronavirus was published in January, Ben Pinsky, associate professor of pathology and of infectious diseases, began developing a diagnostic test to identify the virus and validating the methods. When the Food and Drug Administration announced emergency-use authorization, Pinsky was one of the first scientists to submit an application and the test was one of the first to receive FDA approval. With that, Stanford began doing testing for the virus in early March.

“Just as we were first with a diagnostic test to identify the virus, we’ve also been one of the first to roll out an antibody test to identify the immune response the antibodies produced in response to exposure to or infection with the virus,” Minor said. “That test has been extensively validated and it also is now being deployed in a high-throughput way.”

Minor said Stanford has now tested 9,000 asymptomatic health care workers to get an idea of the prevalence of the virus in the community and to get an idea of how many people have mounted an antibody response.

“It indicates that we do not have enough of an antibody response, enough hoarded immunity in the community, to have anything that resembles what’s called herd immunity.”

Minor said he was excited about the large-scale research collaboration announced Wednesday morning that will track the rate of new regional COVID-19 infections, define population immunity levels and help inform how to safely reopen California’s economy.

The collaboration between Stanford, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub aims to better understand the spread of COVID-19 across the Bay Area. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has committed $13.6 million to the collaboration.

“The study will enroll and accrue participants in the study that are representative of the demography of our region,” Minor said.

“Participants will be tested for the virus and tested for the antibodies using the most accurate test available today. Then they’ll be tracked, they’ll be followed in terms of symptoms. They’ll be followed with successive testing over the course of the next several months. This will give us an idea at a point in time of the prevalence of the virus and the prevalence of the antibody response, and also will enable us to understand how both the presence of the virus and the antibody response change over time in this large group of volunteers that are going to be tracked during the study period.”

Minor said the study’s combination of solid epidemiology with state-of-the-art testing will provide policymakers with data that will be important for determining when people can go back to work safely, and when to begin relaxing some of the social distancing provisions currently in place.

During the interview, Minor also discussed the promising results of two clinical trials that treated COVID-19 patients with the antiviral medication Remdesivir, and the recent announcement by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that hospitals could resume most elective surgeries. In addition, he talked about the dramatic increase in online video office visits at Stanford Health Care since the outbreak of the coronavirus – up to more than 3,000 a day in April, compared with about 1,000 in the month of February.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

After thanking Minor for his leadership and everyone at Stanford Medicine for their hard work in a time of such intense pressure, Tessier-Lavigne said he was grateful to the entire Stanford community, noting that the upheaval this spring has not been easy on anyone.

“But I am continually inspired by this community’s spirit of ingenuity and resilience in the face of this challenge,” he said. “I am especially impressed by the ways in which so many of you are leading in your own areas of expertise, as we respond to this virus.”

Tessier-Lavigne shared some of the ways the community has inspired him:

  • A first-year student has teamed with researchers to design a low-cost ventilator in his home country of Peru.
  • Students in the spring course Data Challenge Lab have created a virtual map showing where Bay Area schoolchildren from vulnerable populations can receive free meals during school closures.
  • A group of staff members are sewing handmade blankets and donating them to COVID-19 patients from vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Tessier-Lavigne noted that the Stanford community is also finding creative ways to bring people together by holding events online, including the recent virtual Earth Day organized by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and last weekend’s virtual Admit Day for admitted undergraduates.

Turning to the topic of reopening the university, Tessier-Lavigne noted that Stanford is beginning to plan for a return to campus.

“The key point is that it will be a phased re-start,” he said. “It will be important that we step very carefully and preserve the progress we have already made in the fight against the coronavirus. Work is being done right now to outline what the phases will look like.”

Tessier-Lavigne said physical distancing and other safety considerations will need to be built into everything the university does for some time.

“We are actively working on what those measures will be, as well,” he said.

Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford is still assessing its options for fall quarter, based on evolving information about the conditions the university is likely to face. As Tessier-Lavigne wrote in his April 28 letter to the Stanford community, the university doesn’t expect to be able to make decisions about fall quarter until sometime in June.

“We will continually track public health guidance and make this decision based on the best available information at the time,” he said. “I promise that we will be in touch with you as soon as we know more.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Tessier-Lavigne expressed his sadness at the recent deaths of two important members of the Stanford community: renowned poet Eavan Boland and Stanford’s 8th president, Donald Kennedy.

Tessier-Lavigne said Boland, who was considered one of the leading female voices in Irish literature, was treasured at Stanford for her transformative teaching and leadership as the Melvin and Bill Lane Director of the Creative Writing Program. He described Kennedy, a neurobiologist who served as president of Stanford from 1980 to 1992, as an extraordinary role model, mentor and friend, a warm and good-humored person, and a good voice for science and research on the national stage.

Provost Persis Drell on the financial picture

In her remarks, Drell said the university needs to decide on a new budget for fiscal 2021 within the next two months.

“As you may have heard, we’ve asked units to begin a budget scenario planning effort, just to get a sense of how they might expect to manage budget reductions in those units and what their priorities are,” she said. “We asked for budget plans for a scenario that assumes a 15 percent reduction in endowment payout and a 10 percent reduction in general funds allocations.”

Drell said such reductions would represent a “worst-case” scenario, but given the uncertainty of the situation, she said Stanford needs to be prepared.

“I hope the reality will be better than that,” she said. “We will carefully consider units’ plans, along with potential university-wide budget-cutting steps, and consult with the Board of Trustees before making budget decisions in mid to late June.

Drell said when setting priorities, she and Tessier-Lavigne strive to:

  • Ensure continuity in our research and teaching;
  • Ensure continued access for students, including through robust financial aid;
  • Anchor decisions in respect and concern for our community, and an understanding of the broader societal context in which they are made;
  • Position Stanford for a strong recovery in the near term and steward our resources wisely for the long term.

Question-and-answer session

In the Q&A that followed, audience members asked questions on a variety of topics, including the considerations that will be taken into account when deciding what fall quarter will look like, the possibility of layoffs and furloughs among staff, and whether it is possible to use the endowment, a long-term fund, to fund the short-term needs that have arisen during the pandemic.

Regarding possible layoffs and cutbacks, Drell said Stanford is analyzing its financial position now and in the coming weeks and is monitoring the state of the economy.

“The first step that we are taking is a budget planning scenario, as I mentioned,” Drell said. “The budget planning scenario does involve planning for a significant level of cuts. But while we know we will need to take some actions to reduce cuts, we actually don’t have any details at this point, because, as in so many other dimensions of our lives right now, the picture is just too uncertain to make that call.”

In answering a question about the phased return to operations, Drell said Stanford will take cautious, measured steps – once the shelter-in-place order has been lifted – to return the university to operations.

She said the university will give top priority to the return of researchers, including giving humanities scholars better access to the libraries they need to continue their research, and returning scientists to their laboratories.

Drell also said an idea proposed by one member of the audience – moving some classes and other activities outdoors this fall – is among the many ideas Stanford leaders have talked about as they consider all options for resuming campus operations.

In response to the final question about the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on everyone in the Stanford community, Drell and Tessier-Lavigne both addressed the importance of sustaining the emotional health of the community. They urged everyone to stay active – go for walks or bike rides or whatever activity is allowed under the social distancing guidelines – and stay in touch with each other.

They also encouraged members of the community to reach out to each other and to take advantage of the many well-being resources available at Stanford.