By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Helen Chu is known as the UW Medicine researcher who stood up to the federal government to identify the first COVID-19 victims in the United States.
But what is less known about her is that, almost simultaneously, she started a study of the first patients hospitalized with the disease. This soon provided data crucial to the development of the mRNA vaccines, and other important treatments.
“We enrolled the first individual in the U.S. with COVID-19, as well as many of the early cases in February and March 2020,” she told Northwest Asian Weekly. “These samples were then shared with a lot of groups in the U.S., including the National Institutes of Health, that used them to help develop the Moderna mRNA vaccine and also to develop some of the first monoclonal antibody therapies, including the Eli Lilly antibody.”
Her study involved identifying ways to collect blood samples from the early survivors. It comprised adults hospitalized with respiratory viral infections (HAARVI).
By sending samples of the coronavirus taken from their blood to the government and Moderna, the production of a vaccine was able to get a jump start and ultimately be completed in less than a year.
It was unrelated to the Seattle Flu Study she was involved in earlier that had led her first to identify the coronavirus in our region. The flu study, which she adapted to test people for the coronavirus despite government orders to cease and desist, marked the onslaught of the invasion.
But her ongoing HAARVI study is showing how to end the war.
“This HAARVI study has also allowed us to make important observations about how long antibody lasts, what predicts development of severe infection, risk factors and prevalence of long COVID, how well antibodies from natural infection are able to control new variants, and many other important early findings in the pandemic,” she said.
Even after almost two years since it began, the HAARVI study and its affiliates at the UW are leading to more weapons against the pandemic. As the virus shifts and changes, in some cases threatening to evade the vaccines, the work started by Chu’s team provides answers again.
A more recent study examined how the spike protein in some of the more devastating variants has mutated. The study “identified a specific mutation in the kappa and delta variants that decreased neutralization,” according to a press release on Aug. 12. “This knowledge may aid in the development of vaccines that will be more effective against emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2.”
Another study brought more attention to the significance of long-haul COVID, in which symptoms persist for months after infection. Chu’s lab, in a follow-up study of HAARVI participants, found that one-third of those infected reported a diminished quality of life after six months.
“This work indicates that even relatively young, healthy individuals, including many who had only a mild case of COVID-19, may experience a host of symptoms that can last for months after infection and adversely impact quality of life,” a press release from Feb. 19 said. “With millions of cases worldwide, even a small incidence of long-term effects can have a huge impact on the economy and healthcare system.”
The courage of a principle
Chu said she is driven by a desire to apply research to solve social problems.
“I think that it’s essential that what we do in academics has a tangible effect on the health of the community,” she said.
This includes a focus on vulnerable groups. She has studied respiratory viral infections in pregnant women, infants, and older adults and performed clinical trials of vaccine candidates both here and internationally, including in Nepal and Bangladesh.
“I have always wanted to work with populations where research could be intertwined with public service, and to do work in the community,” she said.
“We do a lot of work with the homeless population in Seattle, for example, with testing and with studies of vaccine uptake, and we also partner with many of the public school districts in Washington state.”
Chu traces her ethics to her grandparents.
Her grandfather, Chiping Chu, was a journalist who covered the surrender of the Japanese empire at the end of World War II. The moment, enshrined in family folklore, was also perhaps one of the most significant in recent Chinese history. It ended a period of invasion and occupation, from 1937 to 1945, that is considered by many Chinese as the most calamitous in memory. Chiping Chu wrote about it with a meticulousness and power of observation that would later be reflected in Helen’s work.
During the anti-rightist campaign in 1957, her grandfather spoke out about the need for a free press and was sent to do hard labor on the Chinese border with Siberia where he nearly died due to the cold and lack of food.
After China broke relations with the Soviet Union in 1960, he was sent to teach English in a remote college.
“My life was saved by A B C,” he told a reporter years later.
Then, during the Cultural Revolution, the following decade, he was nearly beaten to death. In all, he was separated from his family for 18 years.
Chu’s grandmother was the daughter of a diplomat and had a Master’s in English Literature from Columbia. She stayed in Beijing and raised the family.
When her grandfather eventually died of cancer in 1993, three years after immigrating to the U.S., her grandmother “returned from grief to embrace life” and traveled to Europe for the first time at the age of 77, according to her obituary.
Helen Chu said it was their willingness to speak out for the right thing that had caused them so much suffering. Yet she has followed in their footsteps.
When she first identified the coronavirus in the Seattle area in January 2020, the government told her she could not continue testing because it would violate the rights of the patients since it was outside of the parameters of the original flu study. She did it anyway.
“I am most influenced by my grandparents, who were intellectuals and journalists during the Cultural Revolution in China, and suffered the consequences of their actions,” she said.
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington State Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.