Letter from Whitehead Institute Director David Page regarding COVID-19 (3/15)

The following letter was sent by Whitehead Institute Director David Page on March 15, 2020.


Dear fellow members of the Whitehead Institute community,

 In 1982, as the concept of the Whitehead Institute was coalescing in the minds of Jack Whitehead and David Baltimore, and two years before our building would open, I spent three months as a medical student working the wards, clinics, and emergency room at Phebe Hospital, 100 miles inland of Monrovia, Liberia, in West Africa.  Childhood mortality was high, due mostly to malaria, measles (no vaccination to speak of), and malnutrition.  One weekend, a colleague and I drove a tiny car over deeply rutted dirt roads (rainy season, equatorial rain forest) to visit a more remote hospital, in Zorzor, further inland.  When we arrived, I entered an eerily quiet and largely unoccupied facility.  The beds were mostly empty, the staff having been decimated during the preceding months by the reemergence of a rodent-borne arenavirus, Lassa, that causes a hemorrhagic fever.  Standing in the silent wards at Zorzor, I reflected on the reality of a single infectious disease utterly overwhelming a hospital, albeit one that was primitive by Boston standards, and I supposed that nothing of the sort could happen at the Massachusetts General Hospital, where I had recently completed a clinical rotation in internal medicine.

 As I write to you now, another emergent virus has already overwhelmed the equivalents of MGH and its Boston siblings in Northern Italy, and in Iran, and is bearing down like a violent storm on hospitals across the world; as you know, China and other parts of Asia have already weathered the first wave of this storm.  Accordingly, I have been communicating with physicians and epidemiologists, including Whitehead Institute alumni and other colleagues near and far, who are tracking these developments and anticipating what lies ahead for the communities in which we live, and especially the older and medically vulnerable members of our communities.  A precisely focused and fully documented concern is that the ability of the novel coronavirus to spread rapidly in the population, and cause severe respiratory disease requiring hospitalization, could overwhelm the supply of intensive care beds, ventilators, and medical professionals in our region, across the nation, and across the world.  When hospitals are overwhelmed in this fashion, previously unthinkable decisions are made at triage, and the accounts of frontline providers in Northern Italy, for example, make clear that those decisions are now being made in other highly developed settings.  A glimmer of hope is provided by the observation that forceful public health measures in Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong – despite their links to China – have moderated the storm’s impact on their healthcare systems (but there is no comparable centralization of public health authority here in the US).

 The first line of our Wikipedia entry states that the “Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research … is dedicated to improving human health through basic biomedical research.”  Ironically, the time has come for the Whitehead Institute to contribute to the health of communities near and far – and especially to the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable – by ramping down our in-person research activities, temporarily.  The safety and well-being of our staff and their households is paramount, as is our societal responsibility to assist in slowing the spread of the novel virus.

Over the last few weeks Whitehead Institute has taken several actions to reduce potential exposure to and spread of the virus.  These actions have included closing the WI Cafeteria to the public, restricting international travel, delaying entry to visitors and staff with recent travel to highly affected areas, and limiting the size of meetings and seminars.  And we have engaged in focused conversation with Faculty, Fellows, and directors of our administrative departments as we have weighed next steps.  

Today I am announcing that Whitehead Institute is implementing the following additional policies:

-       All Institute staff whose duties can be performed remotely should do so as of Monday, March 16, and until further notice.  Please discuss these arrangements with your supervisor.

-       Anyone in a high-risk group by virtue of age (60 and above) or underlying medical conditions must also be allowed and encouraged to begin working from home as of Monday, March 16.

-       Whitehead Institute is collaborating with the MIT Department of Comparative Medicine, and our individual laboratories, to ensure that our animal and plant resources are preserved.

-       Labs should ramp down ongoing in-person research activities by Friday, March 20, with the expectation that regular in-person lab activities will not resume for six to eight weeks.

-       Limited exceptions will be made to allow the continuation of critical lab functions, such as animal care and essential experiments which if discontinued would result in significant loss of data, or of material or financial resources.

-       Labs that believe they have critical functions that should continue must request approval by completing and emailing this form to researchrequest@wi.mit.edu by noon on Wednesday March, 18th.  Generally, the expectation is that no more than two or three people per lab will be listed as essential personnel.

-       While ramping down activities, laboratory staff are encouraged to practice social distancing techniques.

-       Please see this checklist, borrowed and modified from MIT, for assistance in ramping down in-person laboratory activities.

Essential staff who currently use public transportation and would prefer to drive are now able to park at any MIT parking lot free of charge.  These lots can be accessed with your MIT ID card.  Please contact HR if you have misplaced your MIT ID card.

Regardless of your ability to work remotely, all Whitehead Institute employees will continue to receive your regular pay during this time.  Information on updated leave policies, tips for working remotely and other information can be found at COVID-19 Policies and Resources

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or suspect that you may be infected or have been exposed, please notify Human Resources at humanresources@wi.mit.edu as soon as possible.

I thank each and every one of you for your commitment to advancing Whitehead Institute’s mission and to serving the greater good.  In this particular moment, I thank all of you for your cooperation in ensuring that we as a community contribute to slowing the spread of the virus, and thereby protecting and supporting the most vulnerable among us. 




David Page

Director, Whitehead Institute

Professor of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute