By Avi Rosenberg, Jonathan Silverberg, Jason Zimmerman and Israel Zyskind
In May, as America reeled from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Orthodox Jews donated blood in a remarkable effort to speed scientific understanding of the deadly new coronavirus.
The pandemic had hit the Orthodox Jewish community particularly hard, especially in the early days when much was unknown, and the pain and suffering experienced was enormous. Living in Orthodox communities, we saw this firsthand. We still remember the frantic phone calls in the early days of the pandemic from worried patients with fever and breathing difficulties. We remember the nonstop Hatzolah calls for respiratory distress and the incessant sounds of sirens in the background.
We realized that the high rate of early infections left our communities with an invisible power: information in our bodies about this new and mysterious disease. So we set out to make a meaningful contribution to the world of science to study this new virus, working with Jewish organizations and others to create a plan to collect thousands of blood and saliva samples from members of the Orthodox Jewish community to be used for COVID-based virology research.
Blood samples from recovering COVID-19 patients could shed light on vexing questions with sweeping public health implications: Who got sick and who remained asymptomatic? Why did some people quickly fight off the virus off while others struggled for weeks? What differentiated those who lived and the many who died?
Working with other doctors from this community, we reached out to the top virology labs in the world and formed a collaboration with 10 in the United States and Canada that would receive serum samples for scientific study. Over 10 days in May, 6,665 people donated blood that was sent to these labs. More than 2,000 of them gave saliva samples as well, enabling a different kind of analysis. And they all quantified their COVID experience on a detailed questionnaire that contained questions about symptomology, severity of illness, oxygen requirement and hospitalization.
This was moving for us to behold. Hundreds of Jewish community members facilitated these blood drives, including doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, medical assistants and support staff spanning five states. At one point so many vials of blood were collected that Rabbi Yehuda Kasirer of Lakewood Bikur Cholim decided to fly to Rochester, Minn., to deliver thousands of blood specimens directly to the Mayo Clinic so these precious samples would remain fresh for analysis.
The Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open has just published the first of many scientific conclusions resulting from this remarkable academic-community partnership. The manuscript describes the “Multi-InstituTional study analyZing anti-CoV-2 Antibodies” — or MITZVA cohort. Mitzvah means good deed in Hebrew, and the study represents efforts by American Jews to return the favor of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness given to us over the centuries by our country.
Our paper describes how coronavirus spread in parallel through multiple culturally bound communities across the United States because of Purim, which began on March 9, and the noted lack of federal and local health guidance during this early part of the pandemic. The JAMA paper calls for local, statewide and national health agencies to tailor and customize health guidance for each specific ethnic and cultural group within the U.S. One-size-fits-all recommendations may be inadequate, as each ethnic group has different social and religious practices.
The pandemic took many turns in American Orthodox communities over the course of the past year. But what is clear is that the Orthodox Jewish population saw an opportunity during the darkest of hours to provide some solace and light to our American family, our national brothers and sisters.
Built into our DNA is the strong desire to give, help and contribute to American society, and to attempt to ameliorate the great pain we collectively experienced during this terrible pandemic year. Just as one good deed begets another, so, too, will the MITZVA cohort generate many additional significant research discoveries that are soon to be published. We are very glad to be able to help.
Dr. Avi Z. Rosenberg is a physician-scientist and practicing renal pathologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Jonathan Silverberg is an associate professor of dermatology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr Jason Zimmerman is an emergency medicine physician in Brooklyn. Dr. Israel Zyskind is a pediatrician in Brooklyn.