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Published On May 27, 2020

Our Response to a Pandemic

Peter L. Slavin and Timothy G. Ferris discuss how Massachusetts General Hospital is tackling COVID-19.

AS COVID-19 CASES STEADILY MOUNTED at Massachusetts General Hospital, so did the questions: Were there better ways to minimize clinicians’ exposure? Could personal protective equipment (PPE) be manufactured or reused in new ways? How could we better treat the very sick patients? Just how many patients would we get? Might a vaccine arrive in time to be useful in this pandemic?

On March 16, the hospital’s research arm—a $1 billion enterprise—announced it was shutting down lab operations. When it did, thousands of researchers turned on a dime to seek answers to these questions and more. 

The innovation that has emerged has been staggering, and so has its pace. To manage a firehose of ideas, committees and centers sprang up overnight, including a center that has enlisted thousands of researchers to work on devices, diagnostics, data analytics and therapeutics. A booth to protect clinicians testing potential COVID-19 patients was designed and installed in less than two weeks.  Researchers’ work in understanding how hydrogen peroxide vapors could decontaminate N95 respirators led, also in a matter of weeks, to the decision to use this technology to preserve these vital protective devices for hospitals across the state. In the nearby city of Chelsea, the hardest hit community in the state, MGH led free testing of its citizens and also descended on Chelsea streets to collect samples for antibody testing to get a better picture of the city’s rate of infection: nearly one-third. Within Boston, the city, its public health commission and the hospital have done the same.

The holy grail—a vaccine—is, of course, a major focus as well, with the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard pivoting away from its usual HIV/AIDS work to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. In another vaccine effort, a collaboration with affiliate Mass Eye and Ear is looking at using an adeno-associated virus as a vector. On the treatment front, MGH has been involved in drug trials for remdesivir, chloroquine, favipiravir and nitric oxide. In an attempt to speed what can be an agonizingly slow timeline for new therapies, many of these studies are platform trials (“When a Cure Can’t Wait”). This innovative trial design allows for quicker moves away from treatments that don’t seem to be working, redirecting study participants into more promising arms and reducing the number of trial subjects traditionally required.

This is just a sampling of what is happening at MGH, and what is sure to continue in the coming months. Even during the time this issue is being printed and mailed, yet more knowledge about the coronavirus will have been amassed. We know that necessity begets invention, but it has been extraordinary to witness scientists examine this problem from every possible angle and take advantage of every literal and figurative chink in its armor.