Photo courtesy Dr. Cedric Francois
Last week we ran a story about the groundbreaking testing regimen called the Co-Immunity Project. This week we speak to Cedric Francois, MD, PhD, who leads Louisville-based biotech firm Apellis Pharmaceuticals and is also participating in the Co-Immunity Project.
Early in May, researchers will begin testing up to 10,000 healthcare workers at Baptist Health, Norton Healthcare, and UofL Health to see if they’ve contracted COVID-19. The testing will also measure the levels of antibodies generated by those who test positive to determine whether their blood plasma could help treat COVID-19 patients. (Standard testing doesn’t measure levels of antibodies or assess the quality of plasma.)
In addition, the Co-Immunity Project will demonstrate the Louisville healthcare community’s ability to work quickly and to work together. Barely four weeks old, the project brings together state government, the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute at the University of Louisville, Kentucky’s three largest hospital systems—Baptist Health, Norton Healthcare, and UofL Health—and the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council (LHCC).
Like most people in the healthcare space, Francois has been closely following news reports about COVID-19. He heard that Joseph M. Flynn, DO, the chief administrative officer of Norton Medical Group, was working to create a plasma bank to treat the sickest patients. He heard that the Envirome Institute was developing sophisticated COVID-19 tests. And he saw a way to create synergy between them.
So he started working the phones. “My contribution has been nothing more than to make a few phone calls and say, ‘Why don’t we lock arms in this together?’”
Francois said it took him perhaps half an hour to get all three hospital systems on board, thanks in large part to the connectedness LHCC has fostered. “We all have each other’s cellphones, we all talk to each other, we all know each other,” he said.
Developing a plan took less than two weeks. “This has been a 10-day complete and utter whirlwind, putting all of these pieces together,” said LHCC president and CEO Tammy York Day. “In my estimation, we are a good week ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of the way this is structured.”
Now, the project is in the midst of a two-week validation phase. The components are being stress tested, legalities are being hammered out, and institutional review boards are giving their approval. “All of that work normally takes much, much longer, but we are going to do that in two weeks,” Francois said.
Assuming all goes well, the three hospitals will begin testing healthcare workers during the first week in May, starting with those most likely to have been exposed to the virus and fanning out from there. But Francois sees the project impacting more than just 10,000 healthcare workers, as important as that will be. “We want to have a system that is born and bred here in the state of Kentucky that is made for our state, for our people, but that we can then expand and give as an example—a Bluegrass blueprint,” he said.
Francois was quick to point out that none of the elements of the Co-Immunity Project is unique. Other cities have hospitals and research universities, of course. And UofL’s Regional Biocontainment Lab, which is run by the school’s Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, is one of 11 Biosafety Level 3 labs in the country.
What’s unique is that the healthcare community in Louisville is well connected and just the right size to pull off a project like this. “We’re talking about 12 companies [in LHCC]; it’s a size that is manageable,” Francois said. “Because we work really well together and had all the right backgrounds behind it, I think we are well ahead of most efforts in the nation or even globally.”