In-Depth: San Diego's most influential COVID-19 researchers

Posted: 5:57 PM, Jun 14, 2021
Updated: 2021-06-15 11:02:46-04
Alessandro Sette and Shane Crotty

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Throughout the pandemic, scientists in San Diego have made big contributions, publishing influential research on everything from the origins of SARS-CoV-2 to the way our body responds to the virus and how we can fight back.

Teams at UC San Diego, Scripps Research Institute and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology published articles that ranked among the world’s top 1 percent by scholarly citations, according to an analysis by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate.

Citations are the number of times an article is referenced in the footnotes of other work. It is used as a proxy metric to estimate the reach and influence of academic research.

At the request of ABC 10News, Clarivate compiled the 20 most highly cited papers on COVID-19 authored by San Diego-based researchers.

The list includes works written by some high-profile figures within San Diego’s scientific community, including Scripps Research Translational Institute director Dr. Eric Topol and Scripps professor Dr. Kristian Andersen, whose lab oversees the genomic sequencing effort for San Diego County.

Dr. Andersen’s March 2020 paper, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” concluded the virus was unlikely to have escaped from a lab and registered as the single most highly cited work on Clarivate’s list. Dr. Topol, who recently received a National Humanism in Medicine Medal, assessed the prevalence of asymptomatic infection in a September article that ranked fourth.

Molecular biologist Dr. Ian Wilson of the Scripps Research Institute led three of the 20 studies identified by Clarivate, exploring the structure of the virus and antibody responses. UC San Diego’s Dr. Antoine Chaillon, a bioinformatics and infectious disease expert, oversaw two highly cited studies on the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2.

No scientific team led more highly cited research than immunologists Dr. Alessandro Sette and Dr. Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute. Dr. Sette co-authored six of the top 20 studies, five of which were collaborations with Dr. Crotty.

La Jolla Institute team behind the most influential studies in San Diego

Dr. Sette and Dr. Crotty are experts in how the immune system reacts to viruses and remembers them.

The LJI team was the first in the world to publish a detailed analysis of the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2, cataloging the T-cells and antibodies that are activated after infection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, discussed that paper’s findings with members of Congress during a high-profile hearing July 31.

“That was certainly a high moment,” Dr. Sette said in an interview.

Early in the pandemic, with the virus still confined to China, Dr. Sette’s lab began running predictive calculations to forecast whether the immune system stood a chance of recognizing the novel pathogen.


Once the first blood samples arrived, Dr. Crotty’s team began pouring through them.

“We expected to be at work a lot after that. My wife basically said goodbye to me for a while and told the kids not to see me for a long time,” Crotty said. “I think I was at work like 200 days straight in 2020.”

Last summer, one of their papers on T cells became a talking point for members of the Trump administration, including then-presidential adviser Dr. Scott Atlas.

In August 2020, Atlas and others repeatedly pointed to the research as evidence the United States had nearly or already achieved full herd immunity against the virus.

Crotty and Sette publicly pushed back against that conclusion, including in an August interview with ABC 10News.

“That we fought against as clear as we could,” Crotty said. “We said look, you’re just saying the wrong things. This doesn’t exist.”

Sadly, the ensuing winter surge proved Crotty and Sette right.

Since then, the two have led projects with fellow LJI researcher Dr. Daniela Weiskopf examining the length of our immune protection against COVID and whether the vaccines can hold up against variants.

“All the signals are very encouraging,” Sette said.

The White House has continued to feature them during the Biden Administration, including at a March briefing this year.

“We’ve definitely done everything we can to help generate a scientific understanding of what happens in COVID-19,” Sette said. “To see people use that science as an example of how our understanding has changed has been phenomenal.”