Infectious-disease expert who helped slow AIDS crisis has UCSD on fast track out of the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Robert "Chip" Schooley is an infectious-disease expert who is leading UC San Diego out of the COVID-19 crisis.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dr. Robert ‘Chip’ Schooley’s use of fast, easy testing and vaccinations is helping the county as well as the campus.

In the early 1980s, as AIDS was beginning its deadly tear, a Catholic priest told a radio audience in Boston that he sympathized with people who didn’t want to be around anyone who had the disease.

Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley about popped a vein.

The young Harvard physician and infectious-disease expert got in touch with the station and relayed a blunt message to the priest: “If you ever make a comment like that again, I will reveal that the church is keeping priests who have AIDS out of sight at a monastery in Newton [Mass.].”

“He was stoking fears people had about those with HIV. It was wrong,” said Schooley, who has spent the past 16 years on the UC San Diego faculty.

Colleagues say the incident is part of the long, ever-evolving legend of Chip Schooley — a wisecracking, idea-a-minute data hawk and fierce advocate for public health.

He’s also an internationally renowned researcher who in the ‘80s and ‘90s helped develop the drugs that turned AIDS into a manageable disease, collaborating with virologists such as Anthony Fauci, an early mentor.

Today, at 71, he is guiding UCSD through a different pandemic — COVID-19 — in a program that’s meant to broadly reopen the 40,000-student campus this fall.

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VIDEO | 00:39
UC San Diego researcher Robert Schooley compares the AIDS and coronavirus pandemics

UC San Diego infectious disease expert Robert ‘Chip’ Schooley explains the difference between the AIDS and coronavirus pandemics.

He put together a big, fast, easily accessible testing program for the COVID-19 coronavirus that has largely prevented significant outbreaks. Students grab free test kits from campus vending machines and typically get results within 18 hours.

The student infection rate is 0.2 percent — good enough for UCSD to hold dozens of face-to-face classes in outdoor tents and to return 8,700 students to campus housing.

By contrast, UC Berkeley has been having so much trouble controlling infections that it has locked down its dorms and prohibited students from exercising outdoors.

Schooley also has been busy on the vaccine front. In December, he was on an advisory panel that helped persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the Moderna vaccine, which it did. In January, he helped UCSD open the vaccination superstation it is operating with the county outside of Petco Park in downtown San Diego. UCSD opened another superstation Feb. 8 on its main campus in La Jolla.

UC San Diego opened a COVID-19 vaccination superstation at its RIMAC arena Feb. 8 to administer vaccines to university employees and UCSD Health patients, with plans to widen its reach soon.

Schooley had built up a lot of goodwill locally even before the coronavirus hit.

In 2016, he used a type of bacterial virus known as a phage to save the life of UCSD researcher Tom Patterson, who was dying of a drug-resistant “superbug.” It was the first time a doctor in the United States delivered a phage intravenously to treat a seriously ill patient.

“I’d probably be holding my husband’s ashes in an urn right now instead of holding his hand if it hadn’t been for what Chip did,” said Patterson’s wife, Steffanie Strathdee, a UCSD infectious-disease expert.

Chip Schooley (left) and Dr. Randy Taplitz helped save UCSD researcher Tom Patterson (in bed) in 2016.
“Chip” Schooley (left) and Dr. Randy Taplitz help UCSD researcher Tom Patterson (in bed) in 2016.
(Courtesy of UC San Diego)

The following year, Schooley helped advise the mayor’s office on ways to stop the spread of a hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people in San Diego’s homeless community.

“He’s a hidden gem. People — even in the School of Medicine — don’t see the impact he has had,” said UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.

Schooley’s colleagues say he’s successful because he is a deeply empathetic, intuitive figure who sizes up problems quickly and rallies people with different strengths around a common cause while deflecting praise to others.

He largely speaks through his research, which is very influential.

“There are researchers who go through an entire career and have only one paper in a big journal. Chip routinely publishes in the best ones,” said Jon Cohen of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a correspondent for the journal Science.

“I’m really impressed with the way he reads new information. It’s based on refined, critical thinking. He knows how to parse information. And he doesn’t lick his finger and go with the wind.”

As the Boston radio story demonstrates, Schooley can be bracingly candid. That has sometimes rankled co-workers and executives in academia, a world where even the smallest slight can be costly.

“He might have become the dean of a medical school if he was willing to be a bit more diplomatic, but I don’t think he’d be comfortable paying that price,” said Dr. Davey Smith, chief of infectious diseases at UCSD.

Schooley says he never intends to be disrespectful. He leavens his words with gentle, corny humor, capped with a smile reminiscent of the one worn by Mad magazine cover icon Alfred E. Neuman.

He does an imitation of Fauci that he calls “the full Tony.” And he tosses off bons mots such as “My father sold railroad boxcars — but not door to door” and “I have a brother. We were raised as only children.”

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VIDEO | 00:44
UC San Diego researcher Robert Schooley discusses whether the campus will fully reopen in the fall

UC San Diego infectious disease expert Robert ‘Chip’ Schooley discusses whether the campus will be back to normal this fall due to a recent drop in Covid-19 infectious diseases.

His father, Bob, did sell boxcars. But Schooley seemed to be joking when he implied that his mother, Francis, preferred his brother, Bill, a “youthful hedonist” to him, a “guilt-ridden Lutheran.”

Keeping up with his witticisms and humor can be tough, as mathematical modeler Natasha Martin learned in 2015 when she joined the UCSD faculty.

“I was paralyzed because every email [from Schooley] ended with witty comments and I’d spend time trying to think about how to reply with something funny,” Martin said. “My comments were not nearly as humorous.”

The AIDS crisis

Schooley grew up in Birmingham, Ala., which he doesn’t recall with affection.

“I didn’t know much except that it didn’t feel right,” Schooley said. “I wanted to get out of the South and go north.”

He ended up at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the early 1970s, where he earned a medical degree and did his residency. Schooley then moved on to the National Institutes of Health in 1976 and spent three years studying viruses down the hall from Fauci.

As it turned out, he was developing the skills that physician-researchers would need to cope with a mysterious new disease that abruptly surfaced in 1981, mostly among gay men in New York and San Francisco. It came to be known as AIDS.

By then, Schooley was a Harvard professor who was treating patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston medical center that pioneered the use of surgical anesthesia and the replantation of human limbs.

AIDS experts (from left) David Ho, "Chip" Schooley and Martin Hirsch at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1989.
(Courtesy of Robert “Chip” Schooley)

Schooley sought a research grant from the American Cancer Society to begin studying the disease and was turned down.

“The perception on the part of many was that this was going to be restricted to a small set of the population and would never affect other groups,” Schooley said.

But the virus spread far and wide and caused tremendous fear, including within the health care industry.

“Hospital employees didn’t want to have anything to do with AIDS,” recalled Martin Hirsch, a Harvard researcher who collaborated with Schooley. “Cafeteria workers wouldn’t deliver food to their rooms. [Some] surgeons would not operate on them because they were afraid of transmission.”

In early 1985, Hirsch and Schooley published a study that showed that health care workers were not at great risk of contracting AIDS from patients. But the fear lingered.

Schooley pressed on, helping to test AZT, which in 1987 became the first drug the FDA approved to fight HIV/AIDS. But AZT did not permanently tame the virus and its mutations, leading Schooley and others to work on other drugs that could be used together in a therapeutic cocktail.

In 1990, Schooley moved to the University of Colorado to head up its division of infectious diseases. He clashed with the state over a law that required scientists to provide the names of AIDS patients who were participating in research studies.

Schooley refused to comply.

“The decision to participate in research becomes very coercive if individuals are told that unless you are willing to have your name on a state list, you can’t have access to the newest approaches in AIDS therapy,” Schooley told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer sided with Schooley and helped get the law overturned.

Coronavirus comes to campus

In 1995, while still at Colorado, Schooley was named chairman of the NIH’s AIDS Clinical Trials Group, whose collaborators were making great progress in developing drug cocktails to fight AIDS. The cocktails were introduced in the U.S. the following year and soon led to a big drop in AIDS deaths.

Schooley helped build on that success by bolstering AIDS research centers in parts of Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the Caribbean, where the disease was running rampant. Scientists say this was crucial in the fight against the pandemic.

UCSD was impressed by Schooley’s global outlook and recruited him in 2004. They also hired his wife, Constance Benson, another prominent physician-researcher.

Khosla, an engineer, listened particularly closely when Schooley appeared at his door last February to give an update on the poorly understood coronavirus.

At the time, the university’s walkways were jammed with students. Carpenters were banging away on new buildings. Research labs were humming, fueled by the roughly $4 million a day that UCSD averages in new grant money.

Schooley delivered the bad news: The virus was going to be worse than most people thought and was likely to close most of UCSD, the county’s second-largest employer and one of the nation’s 10 largest research schools.

A lengthy closure “was not an option,” said Khosla, recalling the moment. “We were supposed to be delivering education, doing research ... and safeguarding the community at the same time.”

He put Schooley in charge of “Return to Learn,” the program to open the campus, and freed up millions of dollars for coronavirus testing. Schooley quickly got Martin to begin modeling disease scenarios. And he focused on studying whether the virus was being spread by people who did not show symptoms — something scientists did during the early, confusing days of AIDS.

“Not everybody was on board with this at first,” Smith said. “They said, ‘Is it worth the money? Why is it important?’ Chip explained it to them and we went on to learn that the vast majority of people were asymptomatic for a day or two before they developed symptoms.”

That helped UCSD build a case that people needed to wear masks and practice social distancing. The campus also soon became the first major research university in the U.S. to test large numbers of students for the coronavirus.

UCSD succeeded in part by making it easy for people to get tested on campus rather than going to a hospital. The university also took the lead nationally in sampling wastewater for traces of the virus, which can, in some cases, be traced back to infected people.

UCSD was largely a ghost town in August due to restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic.
(File / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Still, UCSD took a big hit.

The majority of the 15,000 students living in dorms in March last year had to quickly find somewhere else to live. Nearly all classes were moved online. Many researchers ended up working from their kitchen tables and garages. And when Geisel Library turned 50 in September, the beloved “mother ship,” as it is called, sat mostly empty, and mostly still is.

UCSD did manage to return thousands of students to campus housing in the fall, and it avoided the large-scale coronavirus outbreaks that rolled through schools such as San Diego State University and the University of North Carolina.

But COVID-19 remains a daunting problem.

The disease “is moving much more rapidly [than the AIDS virus did],” Schooley said. “We’ve had much less time to react to it. It took a couple of years for people to realize how widespread the AIDS virus would be. And it became clear in the first six to eight weeks of this one that we were headed for trouble.

“So the tempo of this is AIDS on steroids.”

Even so, UCSD is talking about returning to normal — or a semblance of normal — in the fall, when much of society is expected to be vaccinated.

“I want to see the sidewalks full of students and faculty and staff again, doing the things that make them excited,” Schooley said. “We want to take our foot off the brake and put it on the accelerator.” ◆