It’s not often that a public health study gets a major visibility boost from a Hollywood power couple. But these are no ordinary times, UCLA’s COVID-19 researchers are no ordinary scientists, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are no ordinary power couple.
Throughout the pandemic, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health epidemiologist Anne Rimoin has shared her expertise as a frequent guest on MSNBC’s news commentary program, “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams.” After one of those appearances, Rimoin said, Williams contacted her to ask if he could connect her with “some friends” who had watched the show that night. She said yes.
Those friends turned out to be Hanks, the two-time Oscar winner, and Wilson, the actor-producer-singer-songwriter.
“They wanted to learn what they could do to help as COVID survivors,” Rimoin said. “They had lots of questions. I let them know what we were doing at UCLA, and they were very interested and wanted to participate.”
What Rimoin and her team — co-principal investigator Dr. Grace Aldrovandi of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, postdoctoral scholar Adva Gadoth and doctoral student Megan Halbrook — are doing is leading the UCLA COVID-19 Rapid Response Initiative. The study is providing testing, antibody screening and mental health services for health care workers and first responders.
Although Hanks and Wilson couldn’t participate directly in Rimoin’s study, they made it clear that they wanted to lend their support. And because the couple had and recovered from COVID-19, Rimoin also put them in touch with UCLA’s Dr. Otto Yang, whose research team is collecting plasma samples to study immunity.
Within days of their first phone call, Hanks and Wilson were donating plasma at UCLA, and posting about it the experience on social media.
Hanks shared the experience with his 16.7 million Twitter followers, letting readers know how simple it is to donate plasma, namechecking Rimoin (he wrote she was “crushing it at UCLA”), calling out the Fielding School and encouraging his audience to contribute to support the research. And Wilson, who has more than 1 million Instagram followers, posted a shot of herself taking the antibody test.
“The attention they have brought to our program has been incredible,” Rimoin said. “It’s so important to let people know not only about our research but also the importance of what they can do. Having this kind of high-profile endorsement of what we’re doing is impossible to put a value on.”
Halbrook said the pursuit of much-needed insights about the virus is what drives her work. “But it’s nice to be acknowledged by someone as A-list as that,” she said. “The way we’re going to get through the pandemic is with mass action, so having people like that use their platforms to help efforts that could quicken the recovery is great for people in Los Angeles and more broadly.”
The rapid response initiative will help researchers understand how many people are infected with the virus but don’t have symptoms, whether people can get infected more than once, if the presence of antibodies in a person’s system confers immunity and how long immunity may last. It will also shed light on how the pandemic is affecting health care workers’ mental health.
“Being able to be nimble and do this research in real time is so critical,” Rimoin said. “Having this key information will be so helpful in terms of opening up the world again, and I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to use the skillset that I have with the incredible scientific skills of Grace Aldrovandi and Otto Yang. It’s a great example of Bruin power — of UCLA pulling together and making something happen that couldn’t happen otherwise.”