Dean's Update

January 29, 2021 - Aron Sousa, MD


This week, MSU and Henry Ford Health System signed and announced a 30-year partnership agreement. The partnership focuses on developing innovative research, education, and clinical programs that will advance health and help address health disparities and DEI concerns. This is a big deal for the university and our college.

The agreement includes significant resources to hire new researchers and start a new clinical campus for the College of Human Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital by July 2023. There is also a clear goal and timeline to develop a National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated cancer center. Developing such a cancer center requires creating core research areas with multiple, integrated investigators with grant funding from the NCI. We look forward to partnering across MSU and with Henry Ford on the development of this cancer center, which will provide new access to state-of-the-art cancer care for patients, new educational opportunities for students and residents, and new resources to drive scientific discovery to help future generations. You can find answers to frequently asked questions here.

Also this week, the local media reviewed the outcomes of MSU investigations of staff and faculty violations of the university’s Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Policy. While the university has made many important changes, there is a good deal of variation in managing violations and outcomes. We have the right to work and study in an environment that is supportive and safe for everyone. A recent review demonstrated our staff and faculty were 100% compliant with our chaperone and diversity training, which is what we should expect. Training does not make everything immediately better, but it is an important step in the process of improving our culture and environment. I appreciate the work everyone is doing to help us be better and safer.

In other news:

  • The College Advisory Committee came to an agreement with Executive Vice President Beauchamp on a dean search strategy. The timeline for the search is still a work in process.
  • Mindfulness and Culture of Caring events continue. Sometimes it is darkest before the dawn, and the college is dedicated to providing a path to help and health.
  • Accreditation and the Henry Ford partnership were the topic of today’s weekly Town Hall. You can find a recording of the all of the Town Halls on the website and you can link to future town halls from this stable link; password CHMDean. Next week Provost Woodruff joins us as a Town Hall panelist on February 5.

The COVID-19 vaccines continue to demonstrate remarkable safety, and you should get vaccinated when you get the chance. That said, news about the relatively new COVID-19 variants is concerning. Viruses mutate reasonably quickly, and the evolutionary pressure on the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19 has led to more contagious and transmissible variants. As with all evolution, mutations that are more successful lead to more reproduction. In this case, more transmissible and contagious viruses lead to more infected people (and minks) and more infected people leads to more virus to spread, and soon the successful mutation has become the dominant variant. This has already happened several times during the pandemic.

Fortunately, more contagious viruses are not, so far, more deadly. Reproducing faster in more cells might make a variant more successful. And as a side effect, more rapid virus production in more cells might make a virus more deadly, but being deadly is not an evolutionary pressure for viruses.

It seems pretty likely that the B.1.1.7 variant that swept the UK is here, and the B.1.135 variant that swept South Africa has been found in the US.

The MSU Early Detection Program will soon be screening for B.1.135 (swept S. Africa) and B.1.1.7 (swept the UK) as well as other variants from positive cases in the saliva screening program. The response of variants to vaccines appears to be a concerning mixed bag based on not-yet-peer-reviewed, lab serum studies available in the press. The two currently available vaccines Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna seem likely to work well even if there are signs of lower antibody effect on the B.1.135 variant compared with the B.1.1.7 and the major variant here in the US (probably D614G). Both of these vaccines use the mRNA technology, which the makers are already using to create new variant vaccines in case they are needed.

Yesterday, we learned something about the Novavax vaccine, which uses purified virus protein as the vaccine technology like the tetanus vaccine. The Novavax vaccine appears to do very well against B.1.1.7, and while perhaps still useful against B.1.135, it was about half as protective in South Africa (probably B.1.135) as it was in the UK (probably B.1.1.7).

I am still optimistic about the vaccines overall, and I suspect the mRNA vaccines will still be effective against the variants, although we don’t yet have real clinical data. But, we must remain vigilant, spatially distance, wash our hands, and wear masks. (Maybe more serious masks, especially for frontline workers.) As we learn more about the variants, and more variants appear, our behavior will continue to be our main protection against COVID-19.

Serving the people with you,


Aron Sousa, MD
Interim Dean

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