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    Science, Faith and COVID-19

    An interview with Dr. Andrew Wang about responding to the pandemic with medicine, research and faith

    Dr. Andrew Wang, a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 in New Haven, Conn., stands outside the medical school at Yale University, where he teaches and conducts research. Photo by Alton J. Pelowski

    Dr. Andrew Wang has been performing research in immunology since high school. Now a physician and scientist, the 38-year-old father of three, who is a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 in New Haven, Conn., is fighting COVID-19 at both the hospital bedside and the lab bench.

    Inspired by his mother, who was diagnosed with lupus, Wang studied autoimmunity and inflammation at Harvard University. He later completed his M.D./Ph.D. studies at the University of Texas Southwestern and his medical residency and postdoctoral research at Yale, where he practices medicine, runs a laboratory and serves as an assistant professor in medicine and immunobiology.

    As a doctor at Yale New Haven Hospital, Dr. Wang has seen whole floors converted into COVID-19 wards to accommodate hundreds of infected patients. In his lab at Yale University, he is studying the novel coronavirus and developing tools to test potential drug treatments safely.

    In April, the Knights of Columbus provided more than $250,000 of medical equipment and grant money to assist the hospital’s COVID-19 response and Dr. Wang’s research. Additionally, Wang is serving as a medical consultant to the Supreme Council and is also on an ad hoc panel of Catholic doctors recommending next steps for dioceses and parishes during the crisis.

    Columbia editor Alton J. Pelowski recently spoke with him about these efforts.

    COLUMBIA: What has been the impact of the COVID-19 crisis at Yale New Haven Hospital?

    DR. ANDREW WANG: The caseload here has been substantial, mostly because of the location. It is also a highly advanced care center, so a lot of the other hospitals will send us their sicker patients. At any given time, we’ve had more than 400 COVID-positive patients. It has required transforming many floors into COVID inpatient wards, and we converted a gymnasium into a field hospital. It has been a very stressful time, because our capacity is so large now.

    In this regard, the Knights of Columbus has been ridiculously supportive. Within the first week, the Knights got involved and worked on getting us extra ventilators and PPE [personal protective equipment].

    COLUMBIA: What has COVID- 19 meant for your lab research, which is also being supported by the Knights?

    DR. WANG: With most diseases, you have animal models of the disease where you try therapies on mice, then in bigger animals, like in nonhuman primates. Then, you do a safety study in super-healthy people. The principle is to do no harm — and that whole Phase One process usually takes a long time. With COVID, the argument has been, “Well, we don’t have enough time. And this drug works for disease X that has some similarities to COVID-19, so let’s try it.” From a scientific perspective, though, that doesn’t make sense.

    So, I essentially redirected my entire laboratory to quickly develop a mouse model of COVID, so we could establish a preclinical pipeline for any drugs that are being deployed or considered at Yale — or anywhere else — to be tried first in mice. That effort started in April.

    Biomedical research is expensive, and most funding is tied to particular research. It’s not like I can take money that I’m supposed to use to study an allergy and say, “I’m going to study COVID with this money.” It doesn’t work like that. The unrestricted funding that we had was quickly vaporizing, and in the absence of other funding, this research could not have continued without the K of C support.

    COLUMBIA: What challenges and questions are you facing in trying to understand COVID-19?

    DR. WANG: When I started my lab in 2017, our time was dedicated to understanding an animal’s response to sickness from an immunological perspective, while also keeping in mind metabolic, behavioral and, more recently, psychiatric factors. How do all of these things work together in a way that forms a protective response? When things go wrong, what breaks?

    With COVID, this is really very interesting, because it’s unclear why very old people are the sickest and most susceptible to dying, whereas young children are essentially protected. What about those younger folks who, for some reason, are more susceptible to COVID than others?

    When the world faced the flu pandemic in 1918, a vast swath of the human population had one challenge with one pathogen. Today, with COVID, we have many different manifestations of this disease.

    What are the factors that dictate your trajectory if you get it? Are they genetic, age-related or something else altogether? In the laboratory, you can control for these things. And scientists are trying to figure out how to best tackle this as quickly as possible.

    COLUMBIA: How does your Catholic faith influence your vocation as a scientist and physician?

    DR. WANG: From a lot of different perspectives, my faith really guides what I do. Trying to understand how God designed life is essentially what all biologists do, whether they say they are doing that or not. So, I try to understand the design, and this drives my science.

    My faith has also helped to guide me in the way that I see medicine as a whole, and especially different therapies and the need to innovate. The general question I ask as a doctor is, “Am I doing my patient harm?” That’s our first principle, right? Primum non nocere. It is also the theme of my research.

    Especially in a crisis like this, you need scientists and doctors and research, but you also need faith, you need God, to make sense of it all.

    Throughout the history of the Church, it has always been there in times of great crisis. All of the early hospitals were essentially run by religious orders. Our involvement in addressing health crises, especially infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, etc. — it’s part of our identity as Catholics.

    COLUMBIA: What is your advice regarding the reopening of churches?

    DR. WANG: We have to apply the knowledge and best practices that we currently have, recognizing that they are fluid and may change as we have more information. Like many of my colleagues who are also Catholic doctors, I see Mass and the sacraments as “essential services” — an essential part of society. I think the Church needs to come up with a plan for Mass that’s as reasonable as going to the grocery store. I can go to the grocery store and I can get food. I can go to Home Depot and buy stuff. What’s so different about Mass?

    The most difficult part is the sacrament of the Eucharist. That’s a special consideration in this pandemic, based on how the virus is transmitted through secretions, which is very well documented. In that moment when you have to be within 6 feet of the priest, how can you safely receive the Body of Christ? That’s been a major focus of this interdisciplinary effort I have been a part of — to try to come up with a consensus.

    All of the doctors and researchers who have worked on this project agree there is nothing that should be stopping us from reopening churches or receiving the Eucharist, and doing so as safely as any other service.



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