In addition to first responders and essential workers, bold women are on the frontlines of this crisis conducting crucial research on COVID-19. At the same time, many of these women are facing gender bias and an uphill battle for leadership and recognition within this field. Dr. Helen Chu is defying this. 

Dr. Chu is an infectious disease specialist and lead investigator on the Seattle Flu Study. She is highly respected and very bold. Her Flu Study asked for volunteers with flu like symptoms to send in nasal swabs for them to learn more about flu. Back in January, Dr. Chu theorized coronavirus might already be here in the US, and she knew she had the tools and samples available to the help determine this early. When she realized the flu samples in her lab could help with key information, Dr. Chu fought hard to use her existing study and platform to test for coronavirus. 

She approached state and federal agencies, and asked permission to test the flu study samples for coronavirus, but received constant push back due to regulations and red tape. After weeks of back and forth, Chu and her colleagues got a hard no – they were not granted permission to test heir existing flu samples. Chu grappled with the ethics  – knowing how important this could be for understanding and controlling the spread – she and her team knew they had to go ahead and test the samples anyway. Right away, they found a COVID positive swab – someone young with no recent travel– meaning community spread was already here. Public health experts began to pay attention, but the federal agencies forced them to stop testing again. By March, in an effort to increase surveillance – especially among those not ill enough to seek hospital care and those potentially asymptomatic – they filed documents requesting to pivot their study and create a large home testing program. Partnering with the Washington State Department of Public Health, and securing funding and support through Gates Ventures and The Gates Foundation, Chu and her team created the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) to get fuller, more accurate surveillance of the disease. On May 12th, the FDA issued additional EUA requirements and paused their testing again. They hope to be back up and running soon.

Dr. Chu’s leadership and bold decisions to push through to do the right thing, and continuously pivot at all costs, has been instrumental in the fight against this virus. She is widely recognized by her colleagues as key to this fight.

To read about other bold women on the forefront of coronavirus research, see the articles below.

NY Times article (March 11,2020) that broke this original story.

Dr. Helen Chu bio:

Deutsche Welle article highlighting women leading the fight to control the coronavirus – from stoic policy makers to leading researchers.  Highlights Marilyn Addo and Jung Eun-Kyeong.

A list of many more women doing important research, but also some perspective on many barriers women, and in particular women of color, face in the world of scientific and medical research.