Fred Hutch’s Trevor Bedford receives ‘genius grant’ for work on COVID and other viruses

Trevor Bedford, infectious disease scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Photo used with permission from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we desperately flailed for reliable information to comprehend what had previously been largely unimaginable, Seattle’s Trevor Bedford was a rare source of insight. Bedford, an infectious disease specialist with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, offered up-to-the-minute, science-based results widely shared on Twitter and through fast-breaking publications.

In recognition of his innovative work on COVID and other diseases, Bedford on Tuesday was named one of this year’s 25 MacArthur Fellows. The so-called MacArthur “genius grants” provide a recipient $625,000 in funding over five years to spend as they see fit.

“I’m immensely honored and moved to receive this recognition from the MacArthur Foundation,” Bedford said in a statement. “It’s been a trying and tragic 20 months for the world, but the scientific response to the pandemic has been unparalleled. I’m proud to have been able to play a role.”

When COVID struck, Bedford was part of the Seattle Flu Study, an effort to track seasonal flu. The program quickly began combing through samples searching for this new coronavirus. Using complex statistical methods, Bedford and colleagues zeroed in on evolutionary changes in the virus’ RNA code.

Based on what they found, Bedford in the first days of March 2020 warned that there were hundreds — if not more than a thousand — infected people in Washington, many of whom were asymptomatic. At the time, only 18 COVID cases had been confirmed in the state, which was home to the first known U.S. cases. The researchers cautioned that the number of infections were ballooning, with the cases doubling roughly every six days.

A follow up to Saturday's analysis of undetected #COVID19 transmission in Washington State. 1/11

— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) March 2, 2020

Not only was the work challenging from a research perspective, but Bedford and fellow researchers faced regulatory challenges as well. Early in the pandemic, federal and state regulators blocked the Seattle Flu Study’s efforts, citing various regulations — and Bedford vented his frustrations on Twitter.

“The underlying rationale for federal regulation of diagnostic assays is undisputed, but it was absolutely maddening trying to find a solution that would allow use of our high-throughput research assay for #COVID19 testing through much of Feb,” Bedford tweeted on March 10, 2020.

The New York Times covered the saga and the potential public health harm that was caused by preventing the testing.

Bedford, who is an associate professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease, Public Health Sciences and Human Biology Divisions at Fred Hutch, and his colleagues eventually gained permission to continue with their work under revised guidelines.

The researchers ultimately wound up interpreting SARS-CoV-2 genomic data for public health departments in Washington and other states, as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and others.

On Twitter Tuesday, Bedford shared his gratitude for the MacArthur Foundation’s recognition. “That said, it’s difficult for me to sort out my feelings about these awards, as they are so intertwined with the pandemic,” he added. “It feels perhaps uncomfortable to be professionally rewarded for doing something that felt like a moral imperative.”

In a series of tweets posted on March 2, 2010, Bedford shared initial projections on COVID’s spread.

In addition to working as a co-investigator on the Seattle Flu Study, Bedford also co-developed the open-source platform Nextstrain. The tool creates real-time views of viral phylogenetics, or virus “family trees.”

“Trevor is a gifted, creative scientist and communicator. He has humbly taken center stage as a trusted global leader during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a deep thinker in viral phylodynamics and genomic epidemiology,” Julie McElrath, a senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch, said in a statement.

“His commitment to open science, public health and diversity have an impact on our daily lives,” she said, “and on our future preparedness against emerging pathogens.”

A colleague at the Institute for Disease Modeling, which is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Division, offered Bedford his congratulations via Twitter.

That’s why I’m unreservedly happy for you and appreciative of @macfound for recognizing you. I’ve only ever seen you act to help the living, and never to exploit the dead. The independence of this reward recognizes your respect for the moral imperative. Your hands are clean,” principal research scientist Mike Famulare wrote.

In addition to Tuesday’s award, Bedford recently was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a significant honor in biomedical research. Bedford said he was “completely overwhelmed” by the double dose of recognition. “Flexible funding with a multi-year commitment is the professional scientist’s ream,” he tweeted.

A second Washington state resident received a MacArthur grant: Seattle poet and translator Don Mee Choi. The MacArthur Foundation said Choi was recognized for “bearing witness to the effects of military violence and U.S. imperialism on the civilians of the Korean Peninsula.” Choi is an instructor at Renton Technical College.

Joshua Miele, a principal accessibility researcher at Amazon Lab126 in Sunnyvale, Calif., also was named a MacArthur Fellow. Miele is a blind adaptive technology designer whose work has included developing Braille compatibility with Amazon Fire tablets, and creating a “Show and Tell” feature on camera-enabled Echo devices for identifying pantry and food items.

Past MacArthur Fellows with Washington state connections include criminal justice reformer Lisa Daugaard (2019), University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson (2018), computer scientist Shwetak Patel (2011), poet Heather McHugh (2009) and Hutch scientist Mark Roth, a 2007 fellow who studies metabolic hibernation and was featured this year on GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast.

Health/life sciences Covid-19 Fred hutchinson cancer research center Macarthur foundation Trevor bedford