Combatting COVID, a Riley leader in global health turns his focus to Indiana
Chandy John, MD, is no stranger to fighting epidemics.
A highly acclaimed global health leader and malaria expert, he has spent the last two decades focused on limiting the spread of the deadly mosquito-borne disease in Africa. His insights have saved thousands of lives, helped guide government responses and shed much-needed light on long-term consequences of malaria infections in children.
Today, as COVID-19 spreads across Indiana and the United States, Dr. John is applying what he learned throughout his impressive career much closer to home. He and his colleagues are using many of the same techniques they employ overseas to establish important research studies related to COVID-19 in Indiana. And they aren’t wasting any time. Learn more about how you can support COVID-19 research by visiting RileyKids.org/COVID.
“I’ve been dealing with malaria epidemics in Africa for 20 years,” says Dr. John, an infectious disease specialist at Riley Children’s Health and director of the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Disease and Global Health at Indiana University School of Medicine. “Because we deal with outbreaks, we’re accustomed to assembling studies in a very short time to address the problem at hand. We’re used to: Here’s the problem, we need to launch a study, and we need to get it running in two weeks – Boom!”
What they learn about COVID-19 may help public health leaders develop strategies to protect residents in Indiana and beyond and contribute to the race for a vaccine.
Called to serve
Born in Detroit, Dr. John was only 4 years old when he began traveling to India.
His parents, both physicians, had come to the United States for their residency training, but felt called back to their homeland. They would pack up their children and work for long stretches at a mission hospital in the country’s Kerala region. A young Dr. John would sometimes accompany them on the wards, giving him an early glimpse into medicine’s ability to lift up those who are suffering.
Not surprisingly, he chose to follow his parents into medicine.
“My parents are still my heroes,” says Dr. John, the Ryan White Professor of Pediatrics. “Their whole life mission is to do good for others, particularly for those who have less than we have. They have been my strongest inspiration.”
Global health was a natural fit because it gave him the opportunity to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. He zeroed in on malaria because of its staggering toll. Some 228 million people became infected with malaria in 2018, according to the World Health Organization. That same year, the disease caused 405,000 deaths, an overwhelming majority among young children in Africa.
To put it more simply: A child dies of malaria in Africa every 90 seconds.
For those who do survive, life may never be the same. Dr. John was among the first to prove that severe malaria can cause significant, long-term brain injury in children – sometimes robbing them of their ability to speak or walk. And he identified key factors that determine who is at risk of severe infection, an important step in protecting children.
Taking on COVID-19
Of course, malaria and COVID-19 are very different foes. But Dr. John knows it will take everyone focused on COVID-19 to slow its devastation, so he decided he couldn’t sit on the sidelines. “I have something to offer,” he says. “There are things that we know, and we can transfer that to Indiana and try to combat this awful outbreak.”
He is already helping to launch several research projects.
One study will involve conducting at-home testing of 200 individuals around Indianapolis who haven’t shown any symptoms of the virus. The goal is to determine what percentage of the population may be silent carriers, and whether there’s merit to the common hypothesis that children disproportionately make up this group. The study could provide vital information to public health officials developing a strategy to protect high-risk individuals.
“If kids are walking around and looking great and yet are asymptomatically infected, what approach do you take to decrease the odds of them infecting others?” Dr. John says. “How should we be thinking about the contact children have with others, particularly the older population? How should we be thinking about schools and daycares and other places where kids are?”
Another study will evaluate immunity over the course of a year. It could demonstrate whether those with severe disease develop different immunity than those with mild illness, or who test positive but never experience symptoms. And it could guide scientists working on a vaccine.
“Let’s say we see people who had a high T cell response but never got symptoms,” Dr. John says. “Maybe that’s the kind of response you want to mimic in a vaccine. I think studies like ours could be very helpful.”
Fueled by philanthropy
Dr. John is quick to note that the research – both related to malaria and COVID-19 – involves a small army of contributors. “I work with amazing colleagues and collaborators, here at Riley and in Uganda and Kenya,” he says. “It’s thanks to them that the work gets done, and gets done well.”
And he credits the philanthropic support his team receives through the Riley Children’s Foundation for the ability to pivot so quickly to COVID-19 research. The foundation’s new Riley COVID-19 Research Fund is providing Riley-affiliated researchers like Dr. John with seed money to aggressively pursue promising research aimed at stemming the outbreak.
Beyond that, the Ryan White Center he leads is undergirded by an endowment that provides a permanent source of funding for pediatric research and care in infectious diseases at Riley and IU. The fund was established by IU Dance Marathon, a student-led fundraising organization begun 30 years ago in honor of Ryan White. A Riley patient and HIV activist, White was just 18 years old when he died of AIDS in 1990.
“The endowment is a tremendous gift and tribute to Ryan White,” Dr. John says. “It has allowed me to recruit an entire team of pediatric infectious disease experts, and to train and mentor the next generation of leaders. It also gives me the flexibility to support the most pressing needs of the moment – and right now there is nothing more pressing than COVID-19.”
“Speed matters when responding to an epidemic,” he added. “Thanks to IU Dance Marathon and other donors, we’re charging ahead.”
Learn more about how you can support COVID-19 research by visiting RileyKids.org/COVID.
comments powered by Disqus