Avrum Spira, M.D., Global Head, Lung Cancer Initiative, Johnson & Johnson, in the Intensive Care Unit at Boston Medical Center
Avrum Spira, M.D., Global Head, Lung Cancer Initiative, Johnson & Johnson, treated COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit at Boston Medical Center
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Personal Stories Employee Spotlight

"What COVID-19 Has Taught Me": 7 Johnson & Johnson Researchers Reveal Lessons They've Learned From the Pandemic

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From scientists working on a potential vaccine to medically trained employees who mobilized to the front lines to help treat patients, these men and women share what most resonates for them about the unique and devastating virus, both professionally and personally.
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he COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone, in ways big and small, across the globe. The effects of the virus—from how we go about our daily lives to the ways researchers study infectious diseases—are so far-reaching that the world will never be the same.

Many of Johnson & Johnson's physicians, researchers and scientists at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson have a front-row seat to the impact of this virus, whether they're working on an investigational vaccine candidate, using data science to help predict future outbreaks or helping COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit.

We asked a handful of them to share what intrigues them most about the novel coronavirus, what they wish the public understood better about the disease and how COVID-19 has inspired them to think differently about their work as a result of their up-close-and-personal experiences with the pandemic.

  • Avrum Spira, M.D. Share
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    Avrum Spira, M.D., Global Head, Lung Cancer Initiative, Johnson & Johnson

    Helped treat COVID-19 patients in an ICU

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    During my time spent in the ICU at Boston Medical Center treating COVID-19 patients, one of the most striking things I noticed about this disease was how rapidly patients can progress into acute respiratory failure. They come into the emergency room experiencing a fever and cough, but within 24 hours, they can require respiratory support from a ventilator. I have not seen a pulmonary disease progress this rapidly and unpredictably in my 20 years practicing critical-care medicine.

    What’s one thing you wish the public understood better about COVID-19?
    One of the biggest challenges hospitals face in treating COVID-19 is the critical shortage of ICU nurses, whom I believe are the single most important predictor of patient outcome given the intensity and complexity of care required for COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

    The care nurses provide for this dynamic and rapidly progressive disease can be the difference between life and death. Additionally, one of the heartbreaking aspects of this pandemic is not having family members at the patients' bedside, and the nurses often fill that void by serving as patient advocates and emotional support throughout the ICU stay.

    I also think the public needs to better understand that underrepresented populations in inner cities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Our ICU at Boston Medical Center, the busiest trauma center in New England, was disproportionately impacted by critically ill COVID-19 patients as compared with other hospitals in the Boston area.

    The reason for this is multi-factorial: Our underserved populations often suffer from chronic comorbidities; they have less access to healthcare for their diabetes, asthma or renal failure; and sometimes they do not have the ability to shelter in place. All of these factors need to be addressed.

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    Jerome Custers, Senior Scientific Director, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention

    Working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    I'm fascinated by the speed with which the virus has spread, and is still spreading, all over the world. It has only been a few months since the start of the epidemic in China, and now virtually every country is affected by this devastating pandemic.

    In addition, I am really surprised by the major complications the virus can cause in patients' organs. COVID-19 started as a disease that caused a respiratory tract infection, sometimes with complications in the elderly. But if you read about the damage the virus can cause in the kidneys, liver, cardiovascular system and even the brain then you realize it is far worse.

    What’s one thing you wish the public understood better about COVID-19?
    Governments, academic scientists and industry are preparing solutions very quickly. From the public, there could be more appreciation for, or at least understanding of, the complexity of this crisis situation and that there are many people working very hard to progress science at unprecedented speed.

    Has COVID-19 made you look at any areas of your work differently?
    Working from home has provided some new insights. With all the tools for remote working that are available to us and with the experience we are now collecting, I think we can start working from home more often and make some sustainable changes to the way we organize our professional and personal lives.

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    Staci Hargraves, Vice President, Operations, Portfolio and Strategy, the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson

    Working to reduce disparities in clinical research, including for COVID-19

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    It has disrupted our day-to-day lives. Many people are adjusting well to this new normal, but what about the people who do not have the privilege of working remotely or who do not have access to a car or internet? How do they socially distance? In short, they cannot.

    To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of COVID-19 is the current spotlight on health disparities and inequities across Black and Hispanic communities that have existed for years. As we know, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting these communities, and this has elevated the discussion and work toward affecting change in this area.

    Has COVID-19 made you look at any areas of your work differently?
    As the Executive Sponsor of Diversity & Inclusion in Clinical Trials for Janssen, my team’s focus is on reducing disparities in clinical research to ensure that we have diverse and representative patient participants included. Many of the underlying reasons underrepresented groups in the U.S. participate in clinical research at a lesser rate than other groups have overlap with the underlying reasons COVID-19 is hitting some of these same communities so hard.

    So COVID-19 has certainly underscored the need to have diverse and inclusive clinical trials. To be successful in our pursuit of a potential therapeutic and/or a potential vaccine for COVID-19, it is imperative that we provide a valid and vetted communication channel to get the word out about the importance of clinical research, especially within communities of color.

  • Saquib Rahim, M.D. Share
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    Saquib Rahim, M.D., Senior Director of Data Sciences, Immunology Therapeutic Area, Janssen Research & Development

    Helped treat COVID-19 patients in New York City

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    I worked on the front lines of the pandemic in New York right when it first started to spread and saw such variability in how the disease affects patients. Because of that, I’m incredibly curious to better understand why COVID-19 is so severe in some people but not in others. Most people who get COVID-19 will recover, but the number of people who will have severe symptoms or even grave outcomes is far beyond anything we’ve seen in the modern era.

    Is the variability related to personal genetics, length of exposure, type of exposure, intrinsic aspects of the virus or something else? There are so many unanswered questions with this virus, and the learnings we gain will likely transform our clinical and societal understanding of virology and immunology.

    Has COVID-19 made you look at any areas of your work differently?
    The pandemic has made me think more about the importance of trying to use data to whatever extent possible in pursuing objective truth. The only way we can overcome novel problems like COVID-19 is to constantly enhance our knowledge and understanding—and then apply that knowledge to improve the way we think about and deliver care.

    Given all of the information, and even misinformation, out there, it’s especially important now to separate signal from noise. In turn, the opportunities that having all of this information creates for data and technology to provide meaningful and large-scale impact are immense.

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    Gert Scheper, Compound Development Team Leader, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention

    Working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    I am interested by how COVID-19 affects life and culture on both a small and large scale.

    For example, people are more polite to each other in the supermarket, look at each other before deciding whether to pass each other on the left or on the right and say "hello" or nod in recognition when out for a walk. I hope some of that will stay once the pandemic is under control again.

    On a larger scale, you read about the immense burden on the healthcare system, on the economy and on things that I would not have thought of, like the crime rate.

    What’s one thing you wish the public understood better about COVID-19?
    That measures like staying at home and social distancing are put in place not only to protect the general healthy public, but also to protect people that are more vulnerable to severe disease and to prevent an overload of the healthcare system.

  • Jennings Xu Share
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    Jennings Xu, Director, Data Science Portfolio Management, Janssen Research & Development Oversees COVID-19 data science work

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    We are facing enormously challenging questions, such as predicting where COVID-19 outbreaks will be in 6+ months from now, and it is thrilling to answer these questions using the full breadth of different data sources, data science methodologies and AI tools.

    In many ways, this is a seminal moment for how data of all types and from all places can come together to inform our shared decision-making with the world and measurably impact public health.

    What’s one thing you wish the public understood better about COVID-19?
    Our individual actions really matter for this disease. Putting on face masks, observing social distancing and other measures not only help protect ourselves, but also meaningfully change the trajectory of the disease in our communities and cities.

    In the modeling work that we do, we see that compliance with these policies has a huge impact on the spread of disease.

  • Rinke Bos, Ph.D. Share
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    Rinke Bos, Ph.D., Principal Scientist, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention

    Working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine

    What most intrigues you about COVID-19?
    That the virus has spread so quickly, and that apparently infected people without symptoms can spread the virus. It also intrigues me that we are all together in this situation, but that COVID-19 has impacted every individual in the world in a different way.

    Has COVID-19 made you look at any other areas of your work differently?
    Because the way we work has totally changed, I understand now more than ever the importance of really connecting with people.

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The eight-episode video series, hosted by journalist and author Lisa Ling, delves into efforts to create a potential COVID-19 vaccine. You can also check for updates on season 2, debuting July 7.

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