Drawing Upon Decades of Infectious Disease Experience in the Hunt for a Vaccine
By Alison Gwinn
The right man in the right place at the right time: that’s the best way to describe Mark Mulligan, director of the Vaccine Center at NYU Langone Health and a central player in the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“This is our moment to contribute as much as we can to find a solution to the problem we’re all in,” he says.
Mulligan arrived at NYU in 2018, and he wears several hats here. In addition to his work running the Vaccine Center, he is also director of Langone’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology. Then there’s his teaching: he is a senior professor in the Grossman School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine and a professor in the school’s Department of Microbiology. Mulligan opts for a simple analogy to describe his work. “Being an infectious disease clinician is like being a detective,” he says, “trying to figure out the germ or bug that is causing the fever or the infection.”
For example, in the early 1980s, Mulligan began investigating a mysterious new disease called HIV/AIDS. “An HIV vaccine is one of the holy grails,” he says. “I’ve often said I can’t retire until we have one.”
Over the last two decades, he has also conducted NIH-funded research into emerging diseases like H1N1, Ebola, and Zika while tackling persistent illnesses. “TB, malaria, and influenza—[we] are always working on them,” Mulligan notes. “But when emerging threats appear, we have to drop everything.”
The novel coronavirus is a perfect example. “When I came here, we said we needed to have preparedness for a potential pandemic,” says Mulligan, who lauds the university’s long tradition of infectious disease work (the medical school graduated both Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the superstars of polio vaccine research). “In the last five years, NYU saw a great need to put together a research program that can respond.”
So having heard reports of COVID-19 back in December and watching it spread around the globe, Mulligan says it was clear that the Vaccine Center would need to quickly ramp up research—while taking care of those who contract the virus. Since then, the team has put on a full-court press, both studying COVID patients and participating in clinical trials of vaccines and antibodies.
Ultimately, Mulligan says, “three things guide us: Where do we have expertise and experience? Where is there an opportunity to restore or protect human health from infectious disease? And what are we passionate about? Because none of this is easy, and you need that spark to persevere.”