Aaron Richterman - Class of 2005

By Gail Smallwood

Fighting the pandemic, one patient at a time

In February 2020, when DR. AARON RICHTERMAN ’05 was conducting research on HIV and tuberculosis in Haiti, a new virus was spreading rapidly across China. Richterman, an HIV Clinical Fellow at Brigham & Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. at the time, soon returned to Boston and quickly found himself on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, treating some of the 100-200 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus at any given time during the surge in the city. He also worked on the early clinical trials for remdesivir, an anti-viral medication that can be effective in treating hospitalized patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 pneumonia.

Now serving as an Infectious Disease Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, Richterman continues to treat patients with severe COVID-19, exploring how best to use remdesiver and a steroid called dexamethasone. He also helps facilitate connections between patients and clinical trial teams working on new therapies for the illness. He is encouraged by the possibility of the development of a safe, effective and convenient medication that can be delivered to outpatients, accelerates recovery and prevents progression to severe disease. And he is hopeful that a vaccine will soon be ready for use.

“Over the past nine months it has been really inspiring to see the entire scientific community come together to solve a single crisis,” he says. “I am cautiously optimistic that the global community will commit the resources necessary to complete the massive undertaking of delivering an effective vaccine to billions of people.”

Helping people overcome devastating illness is nothing new for Richterman; infectious diseases have been his research focus for more than a decade. He has done extensive work in clinical care for patients with HIV, cholera and tuberculosis in Haiti, where he studied the connection between food insecurity and cholera during one of the largest epidemics of the disease in the world. In the United States, he has been studying how poverty undermines the nation’s ability to control infectious disease epidemics. He is particularly interested in studying how changes in food stamp eligibility affects HIV rates in the community. “We are seeing the same principles apply in the COVID-19 crisis, where the pressures of poverty and food insecurity dramatically increase the risk of infection,” he says.

While closely following the developments of therapeutic treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, Richterman is concerned that the more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases being diagnosed every day worldwide means many patients may not be able to get the treatments they desperately need. He is a big proponent of masks, noting that this relatively cheap and scalable tool dramatically reduces spread of the virus. “We have seen that in hospitals that have instituted universal masking for staff and patients, transmission has been nearly eliminated.

“This is a new disease. We have learned a lot in these last nine months and we are likely to learn a lot more, so it’s really important for all of us to remain humble about the virus and be open to new evidence as it emerges,” he says. “My hope is that this pandemic will make clear the need for durable investments in public health institutions and infrastructure. If we don’t, I fear we may see something like this happen again in our lifetimes.”

You may contact Aaron Richterman at aaron.richterman@pennmedicine.upenn.edu