As you consider the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, spare a thought for the mice. And the zebrafish. And the state of American science.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the United States. But it’s also yielded an unexpected benefit for scientists: a renewed appreciation of the importance of doing, funding, and understanding science among the U.S. public.

That phenomenon is visible in Anthony Fauci, Ph.D.’s 72 percent approval rating in mid-June 2020; in the up to ten billion dollars being funnelled to COVID-19 research via Operation Warp Speed; and in the skyrocketing valuations of biotechs like Moderna, Inovio, and Vaxart that are working on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

For all those positive effects, COVID-19 isn’t the end-all, be-all of science. Both mice and men have been left high and dry in the pandemic’s wake. Labs have been shuttered, studies have been paused, and work deemed non-essential put on hold.

In the case of the mice, this was an existential—if thankfully short-lived—problem. At Isabella Rauch, Ph.D.’s lab at Oregon Health & Science University, over a hundred lab mice were euthanized within days of a Tuesday, March 17, mandate that she shut her lab down. From her location in Portland, OR, to Cambridge, MA, similar procedures have been repeated thousands of times since March 2020. 

For the people, things are more complicated. That’s because many aren’t dealing solely with scientific challenges. Nearly a quarter of life, physical, and social scientists in the U.S. are foreign-born. That rises to over 40 percent for both life and physical scientists—your ecologists and neurologists, chemists and biologists. For these immigrant and visa-based scientists—including the heads and founders of Operation Warp Speed, Moderna, Inovio, and Vaxart, as well as Rauch—the pandemic has been a two-pronged crisis. On the one hand, they’re at the forefront of COVID-19 research, even as they try to preserve their pre-pandemic work. On the other, the danger of a federal government intent on restricting immigration looms above many.


When he headed from Hamburg, Germany, to the University of Kentucky in 1990 as a visiting scholar, Andreas Vogt, Ph.D. did not plan on staying for long. “I thought I’d come back to Germany and have all this experience and do real well,” he told The Politic in a recent interview. Surveying the economic landscape of a reunified Germany in the early ’90s, though, he saw few opportunities. “All the academics, they drove taxicabs,” he recalled. So he remained in the U.S., met his future wife, and moved after a few years to the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), and slowly but surely settled down. Over the years, he worked his way up to a position as an associate professor of computational and systems biology, in addition to leading a research group at Pitt’s Drug Discovery Institute.

At the time of the pandemic’s arrival in Pittsburgh, Vogt was doing the kind of research he’s spent much of the past decade performing—lab-based drug development with zebrafish. When Pitt shut down in March 2020, his work came to a halt. “We can’t go back in the lab, we can’t do experiments…[the COVID-19 pandemic] is a big blow to many researchers in the university,” he said. For Vogt, the result is more than an experimental hiatus. He’s been able to run through data and do small amounts of work from home, but he relies on finite grants—mostly from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—to pay researchers. If that money runs out, he’s not sure they’ll be able to get more in the midst of a pandemic, especially if his lab remains closed.

Motivated by the urgent need for action and a desire to be doing some sort of research, Vogt has ended up in an unexpected place: lending his expertise on drug discovery to a COVID-19-related project. “I’m not sure that we will make a real, quick impact, because we’re not vaccine developers, we are not virologists…but we’re trying to target the coronavirus with drugs,” he said. Vogt sees drugs as a long term necessity for coping with the disease. 

“This is not going away,” he reiterated several times during his interview. “The more drugs we have in our armamentarium, the better off we’re going to be to respond.”

Across the country, thousands of scientists have found themselves in positions similar to Vogt’s—shut off from their normal work, but facing a challenge they know something about—and responded in kind. “There are hundreds of labs in the United States…that have started or continue to do COVID research,” Vogt said. Many of these labs share a certain commonality: they’re led by immigrant researchers. 

At Pitt’s School of Medicine, next door to Vogt, a team co-led by Italian-born Andrea Gambotto, M.D., has been developing a patch-based delivery system for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. At the University of California, Berkeley, the labs of Taiwanese immigrant Patrick Hsu, Ph.D., and Swedish immigrant Anders Näär, Ph.D., among others, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding as they’ve turned their attention to SARS-CoV-2 research. On Yale’s campus, Chinese immigrant Chen Liu, M.D., Ph.D., Anthony N. Brady Professor of Pathology, is helping lead a vaccine development effort based on a delivery model used to create the Ebola vaccine. These labs aren’t just led by immigrants. Like most in the U.S., they’re reliant on a mainstay of American science: foreign-born postdoctoral scholars (postdocs).


Foreign-born postdocs make up 49 percent of the country’s 44,000-strong postdoc population, and their impact is particularly strongly felt in the life and physical science labs now working on the pandemic. “I haven’t received a single non-immigrant postdoc application in the past five years,” wrote Samantha Morris, Ph.D., a professor of genetics at Washington University in Saint Louis (Wash U), in a recent tweet. Morris herself came to the U.S. as a postdoc on a J-1 visa, before transferring to an H-1B and then to permanent residency. Vogt and Gambotto followed similar paths. Postdocs—attracted by the promise of a welcoming U.S., with opportunities for advancement and residency—are the mitochondria of American science.

The Trump Administration does not seem to care. In an executive order issued on Monday, June 22, President Donald Trump suspended the issuance of H-1B, H-2B, many J-1, and L-1 visas, citing the deleterious impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. job market. “The proclamation is not retroactive,” clarified the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Twitter account, nor is it supposed to affect researchers. But it’s already heightened concerns that they could be next—and dampened the attraction of working in the U.S. Wei Qian, Ph.D., a Chinese postdoc at Wash U, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would likely have chosen to go somewhere else—such as Singapore or a European Union country—if he had anticipated such strong anti-immigrant rhetoric from the U.S. government. He hasn’t left the country in two years out of fears that he won’t be allowed to return.

The recent edict isn’t just frightening for postdocs—it’s dangerously counterproductive. With every set of 100 H-1B visa recipients adding 183 jobs for U.S. workers, on average, it will likely run counter to its stated objectives. And despite his own claims to the contrary, Trump’s administration appears to have badly bungled many aspects of its COVID-19 response. Making up for that shortfall are the immigrant scientists pioneering treatment, prevention, and cures for the disease. “We should want as many [scientists] that we can get,” both now and in general, said Spanish immigrant Bernat Olle, Ph.D., CEO of Vedanta Biosciences, in a recent Chemical & Engineering News article.


Looking back at his younger self, Vogt says the U.S. wasn’t his first choice for postdoctoral work. “England, I would have much preferred,” he remembered. But he, like hundreds of thousands of others from around the world, ended up here. His work in the decades since—on everything from cancer to kidney regeneration—is one of hundreds of thousands of reminders of why we welcome immigrants, and immigrant scientists in particular. The pandemic has shown us that more clearly than ever. Vogt, Liu, and Morris, to name a few, are integral to the U.S. story, and its science. We’d be far dumber without them—and dumb to not welcome their present-day kin.

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