116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When Dr. Pat Winokur was in college, molecular biology was an emerging science that appealed to Winokur's desire to work with patients - and viruses - and use her investigative skills.
'I really like the detective work of being an infectious disease specialist, and the fact that infections can involve any part of the body,” she said.
'Oftentimes, it's through (a patient's) history and talking to the patient that you really understood what put them at risk for a certain type of infection.”
Winokur, executive dean of the UI's Carver College of Medicine, was the principal investigator for the UI portion of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trials, which found the vaccine to be 95 percent effective.
'This was an unbelievable success story,” Winokur said.
FRONT LINES OF RESEARCH
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics was chosen as one of the vaccine trial sites because of its strong reputation nationally, Winokur said. The university has been part of a vaccine trials unit funded by the National Institutes of Health for a number of years and is well known to companies for the quality of the data it provides, she said.
Winokur's team began recruiting participants for the COVID-19 vaccine trials in July and had no problem finding volunteers.
'Iowans are really good at volunteering and feeling like their participation is important for helping others,” Winokur said. 'I think that's different from some of the other clinical trial sites in the country. There's a true altruism in the Iowa population.”
After the trials were completed, Winokur's team also helped roll out the vaccine's distribution to health care workers at the UI. In addition, they brought back any trial participants who had received a placebo and vaccinated them as well.
As a hospital employee, Winokur has received both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
'Even though I think they're both great vaccines and very similar, it's just more interesting to have gotten the Pfizer vaccine since I knew the inner workings of the trials,” she said.
Winokur, who was born in Missouri but moved to Iowa in junior high, did her residency in internal medicine and her fellowship in infectious diseases at the UI, then left for a few years to work at the National Institutes of Health. The UI recruited her and her husband, Tom Scholz, a pediatric cardiologist, to join the faculty.
'This turned out to be a great match for Tom and I, for our residencies and fellowships. We fell in love with the University of Iowa and the College of Medicine,” Winokur said. 'It wasn't hard to recruit us back.”
She has been doing research since joining the UI faculty, starting with test tube-type research related to infectious diseases. She became involved in clinical research around the time of the nationwide anthrax bioterrorism scare in 2001.
Similar to the ongoing COVID-19 research, the anthrax research 20 years ago 'was really fast pace, keeping track of the clinical trials but also watching the whole story evolve in the news,” Winokur said.
Over the past year, the urgency of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials often required long workdays.
Winokur, like so many others, has tried to find time to relax. She and her husband have a black standard poodle named Daly that they take with them hiking, fishing and biking on property they own north of Iowa City. They also enjoy cooking together when they are home.
While Winokur's mother still lives in Iowa City, both her brothers and Tom's family are scattered across the country. Due to COVID-19, they've been keeping in contact through phone, e-mail and Zoom. While the pandemic has meant isolating from her family and friends, Winokur said she never felt the social isolation others experienced because she and her team saw so many people while they were working on the vaccine trials.
'The clinical trials are kind of invigorating. People were so happy to participate that the stress was really just in trying to get all the data as quickly as we could and keep up with the volume,” Winokur said. 'But it was a really positive time for my team and myself because we really felt like we were contributing.”
A second trial, studying the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, began enrollment in January. Winokur's team also has been doing some treatment studies, looking at some of the compounds that could shorten a patient's hospital stay.
ON THE HORIZON
Winokur said there is constant global surveillance trying to catch emerging illnesses, looking for different pathogens, bacteria and viruses that could spread rapidly from person to person.
While the coronaviruses are included on that watchlist, one of the illnesses infectious disease experts are preparing for is the global spread of a more aggressive influenza virus, such as the 1918 Spanish flu that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
'Some of the ones that have been circulating in China have been very virulent, very deadly. And we know influenza can spread just as quickly as coronaviruses,” Winokur said.
However, this virus was a good test of the ability of infectious disease experts to respond quickly to a threat, she said.
She credits scientific developments over the past 15 to 20 years, such as the messenger RNA technology that was used to produce the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and the increased speed with which even more traditional vaccines are being produced.