A COVID-19 vaccine is the only way back to a pre-pandemic way of life, and racial and economic disparities in healthcare are the “weak link” in getting society there, Emory University President Claire E. Sterk said in a July 13 appearance at the Rotary Club of Buckhead.

“I think about it sometimes as a highway with multiple lanes,” said Sterk, a Buckhead resident who is also a professor of public health with expertise in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. “We need to have people who continue to be very focused on developing a vaccine because that’s the only way, frankly — that we need an effective vaccine in order to move forward as a society. I don’t think we can make it if we all have to take precautions and cannot be together or have to engage in social distancing and all the ways to protect ourselves. The key will be, once we have the vaccine, that it be made available to everybody.”

Emory University President Claire E. Sterk.

Speaking in a virtual meeting, Sterk discussed Emory’s role in researching a vaccine and treatment regimes for COVID-19. She also touched on her pending retirement, with Gregory Fenves taking over as president in August.

Sterk spoke about the pandemic’s uncertain mix of hopes and challenges, describing herself as optimistic about the scientific research but saying it will be a rough road until there is a vaccine.

“The fight against this global infectious disease requires a sustained local effort and is something we can only tackle, I believe, if we partner together,” said Sterk. She noted that Rotary International has partnered on an effort to eradicate the viral disease polio, with remarkable near-success. But she also noted that effort has taken decades and is not complete, showing “how tenacious these infectious diseases can be” and how they require mobilization for a “long haul.”

“As a public health expert I’m very optimistic about all the work that’s taking place, all the communities that are involved, and the comprehensive perspective that we’re taking,” she said. But she also acknowledged having spent hours earlier in the day adjusting Emory’s reopening plans to new information as cases rise.

Sterk said that “there was a lot of tension between people wanting to see the horizon, the end of all this, and then the many unknown questions. … And unfortunately, from everything I have heard and learned, we will have a series of ups and downs and that will be with us until we have a vaccine.”

Emory is among the locations coordinating and conducting vaccine research as part of the U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed” program. “And I’m pleased to report that the preliminary results are quite encouraging,” said Sterk, with testing of a possible vaccine entering “phase three,” meaning testing on large numbers of subjects.

In the shorter term, improved treatments for COVID-19 are important and Emory is researching those as well. Sterk said Emory is one of the national test sites for treating COVID-19 with remdesivir, an existing antiviral medicine. Also important, she said, is experimenting with combinations of existing drugs that may help without starting from scratch. The day before, she said, a lung cancer specialist at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute was partnering with other doctors about possible treatments for COVID-19’s respiratory symptoms.

Another field of research with pros and cons is how COVID-19 patients develop antibodies. Sterk said that researchers have found that many people hospitalized with COVID-19 “develop virus-neutralizing antibodies within six days of testing positive.” That can be good news for developing a vaccine and for possible treatments like so-called convalescent plasma, where sick people are given the blood plasma of patients who have recovered to boost their antibodies.

On the other hand, Sterk was not optimistic that the development of those antibodies is permanent — meaning that people who recover may not remain immune to the coronavirus. That’s a blow to the idea of so-called herd immunity, where so many people become immune that the disease can no longer freely spread and dies out.

“I believe that as a society we need to be very careful to think about herd immunity,” said Sterk. “There are people that believe that if you get infected that means you are immune forever and we’re learning that that’s not the case.”

But even as treatments and possibly a vaccine come, there is the question of how to deploy them against a pandemic that is already having unequal impacts on lower-income people and people of color. Sterk noted that in her field of HIV/AIDS, highly effective treatments were developed relatively early, but were too expensive for most people to access.

“We have learned a lot in the Atlanta area — including Buckhead, which is where I happen to live — that the social and health disparities that we have in our communities are very important,” said Sterk. “… That’s what this epidemic, this pandemic, is showing us … is that despite the fact that we have made so many advances in medicine in terms of health and well-being in the world, the disparities really stand in the way.”

Sterk added: “Personally, I am on a mission to make sure that we all understand that this is not just about getting through the current pandemic, but that it also will serve as an impetus to address all of the disparities that we have in our society, because that’s where our biggest weakness is. That’s where the weak link is.”

Sterk has served as Emory’s president since 2016. She referred briefly to the “privilege” of overseeing the annexation of the university’s main campus into the city of Atlanta in 2018, and said she is “very proud” of Emory’s ongoing development of its $1 billion Executive Park campus in Brookhaven. After retirement, she said, she is staying in Atlanta and “staying involved.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.