Why an acclaimed Georgia Tech professor is barred from her COVID-19 research

Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee, one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts, is working for national and state agencies to try and contain the new coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. (photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee, one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts, is working for national and state agencies to try and contain the new coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. (photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Eva Lee’s work on modeling mass disease outbreaks is so well-known that the United States, China and Singapore have sought her help in fighting COVID-19. At the same time, her employer, Georgia Tech, has banished her from campus and locked her out of her university email account.

Lee is a brilliant computer modeler. When Grady Memorial Hospital called on her a decade ago for help with an alarming rate of infections related to open-heart surgeries, she built a program that cut the rate to zero within 12 months.

Lee, 55, is also an admitted felon, although her attorney questions the prosecution of her. In December she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to falsifying the membership certificate behind a $40,000 National Science Foundation grant and then lying about it to investigators.

Her predicament appears to stem from taking shortcuts while filling out the certificate — shortcuts she’s now paying a severe price for. Georgia Tech suspended her almost a year ago from a professorship she has held since 1999.

Because of her suspension, Lee has no access to the 200 computers in her lab at Georgia Tech or to the students eager to help her fight disease outbreaks. Even so, multiple governments have sought out her help with coronavirus. So, sitting at her home computers, she has built mathematical models for each.

As the coronavirus pandemic builds, Lee feels her separation from Georgia Tech — and its deep resources — most acutely.

“I feel horrible,” she said in a recent interview.

It’s possible Lee could soon be removed from the front lines of the fight against the pandemic. She is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on May 21. And she will no longer be able to develop and share her models if she’s placed inside a prison cell.

Tech refuses to restore privileges

Under a plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is recommending Lee serve a sentence of eight months of home confinement. But the ultimate decision will be made by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones.

As she awaits Jones’ judgment, Lee has been hard at work at her home filled with plants and large cages housing birds she’s rescued, about three miles from Georgia Tech. On Jan. 27, at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, Lee joined a collaborative of high-ranking federal, state and local officials formed to fight the coronavirus.

Four days later, Romel Lapitan, director of DHS’s Agro/Bio Terrorism Countermeasures Division, asked Georgia Tech president Angel Cabrera to restore Lee’s access to her university research facility and programs.

“As a nation it is imperative that the government and its citizens work together in combatting the disease to prevent a pandemic and protect the public,” Lapitan wrote, imploring Cabrera to consider the plea “quickly.”

Yet Georgia Tech has not given Lee such access. Lee had previously used one of the university computers, owned by the Centers for Disease Control, for biomedical disasters and national security research.

In a statement, Georgia Tech said it removed Lee’s access to its network and systems “following standard administrative practices” after it was notified of her potential violations.

The school did say it “had offered to search for and produce any specific files that Dr. Lee had saved to its network and systems.”

But Lee’s attorney, Buddy Parker, said the files his client needed to access were on secured computers that contained classified information that only she was authorized to see. If Lee could access the files under supervision, that would work, Parker said.

But Georgia Tech said it first needed an official request from someone overseeing coronavirus efforts — even though it already had the email from Lapitan.

‘My God, this is not good. Not good’

Lee, who was born in Hong Kong, uses complex computer modeling to study and predict major public health issues, such as disease outbreaks and diagnosis, optimal treatments and drug delivery, and medical preparedness.

In 2003, Lee and her research team built a software program called RealOpt, a computerized planning system that analyzes all sorts of data sets, including a region’s population density, demographics, health care system and socioeconomic factors.

“I tried to build a model that accounts for the disease but also accounts for the human reaction — how the people behave — as well as the environment itself,” Lee said. “It works quite beautifully. We predict so crazily well it is scary. When it is correct and no one takes action, that is the most painful part.”

» AJC continuing coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

When she first began looking at COVID-19, the outbreak was still confined to China. But Lee did not like what she saw.

“I thought, ‘My God, this is not good, not good. It’s going to come to us,’” she said.

She began calling for immediate school closures, a suspension of church services and employees working from home at the first sign of the infection in the U.S. Cities across the country, including Atlanta, waited up to two weeks too long before taking such measures, she said.

‘Dr. Lee’s passion for saving lives’

Her RealOpt program helps decision-makers on the ground use differing scenarios to combat an outbreak, such as recommending the best places for treatment centers and testing.

Lee used it when she went to Japan after an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor and to help health care workers dealing with the Ebola crisis in West Africa. And she deployed her models at Grady, eliminating a surgical infection rate of open-heart patients that once stood at 23 percent.

“Dr. Lee’s passion for patients and saving lives is evident,” Michael Wright, Grady’s former senior vice president, said in a court filing.

Georgia Tech wanted to license RealOpt for sale, but, at Lee’s insistence, it has been given free of charge to public health agencies nationwide, according to court records.

 Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee, one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts, is working for national and state agencies to try to contain the new coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. (photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

icon to expand image

Credit: Bob Andres

Lee fields calls and answers emails at all hours from users whenever they have questions. She took calls from officials in Puerto Rico when it was hit by Hurricane Maria and from authorities in Houston during the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. She suspects there are hundreds of messages she has been unable to respond to because they were sent to her Georgia Tech email address.

“Usually what happens whenever there was a disaster, I’d get hundreds of emails,” she said. “They’d say, ‘We are under attack and we need help,’ and I said I’ll quickly do it.”

As for her work now on COVID-19, she said, “I have been sleeping very few hours. It’s life or death.”

Lee falsifies membership certificate 

Beginning in 2008, the National Science Foundation began awarding a $40,000 annual grant to both Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, enabling them to partner with local hospitals in their areas. It gave Lee’s students first-hand experience as they worked alongside doctors and nurses in operating rooms, ERs and intensive care units.

During phase one of the program, which covered six years, Georgia Tech’s Office of Sponsored Programs, which assists faculty with research grant proposals, helped Lee prepare the annual NSF membership certificates. But the office stopped assisting Lee during phase two, beginning in 2014, according to a sentencing memo filed in court on her behalf.

NSF guidelines for the $40,000 annual grants call for a minimum of three industry members to contribute a total of $175,000 a year for the program. The members must also vote which projects are to be carried out, and a certificate must be filed stating the amount of membership fees that had been provided.

In 2016, Lee’s certificate said five health care members had each donated $50,000 to the program, when in fact three of them — Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Restore Health Group and Grady Health Care — had not supplied funding. Lee also duplicated the signature and name of the same Georgia Tech Research Corp. contracting specialist who had certified the previous year’s filing, without the specialist’s knowledge, court records show.

Last year, the NSF’s inspector general began investigating the matter. This included an April 10, 2019, interview with Lee in which she told an agent that an unidentified “assistant” voted on behalf of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for it to participate in the 2016 program. That was not true, which Lee later admitted to the agent.

During that same interview, in her defense, Lee told the agents, “This is about patients. I don’t care if nobody gives me money,” according to court records.

The following day, the U.S. Attorneys Office sent a letter to Lee informing her she was the target of a grand jury investigation that could bring a number of charges against her.

This included aggravated identity theft for duplicating the contracting specialist’s name on the 2016 report. A conviction of that offense carries a mandatory two-year prison sentence.

Before the grand jury handed up an indictment, Parker, Lee’s attorney, struck a deal with federal prosecutors. It allowed her to plead guilty to one count of filing the falsified certificate to NSF in 2016 and another count of making the false statement to the inspector general special agent during her interview. It also allowed her to escape the possibility of the mandatory prison term.

In a statement issued this week to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Parker didn’t mince words about his thoughts about the case against Lee.

“Dr. Eva Lee’s prosecution for false statements is a failure, an abandonment, of the authority recognized in American justice of prosecutorial discretion,” said Parker, a former federal prosecutor. “Dr. Lee stole no monies from NSF. She stole no monies from Georgia Tech. Dr. Lee caused no harm to NSF and Georgia Tech. To the contrary, she brought positive recognition to both.”

And while Lee helps with the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to prosecute her, Parker said. “Why? Is it just to enforce the rule of law or just to exercise power?”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said the office declined to comment on Lee’s case.

Preparing for a biological attack

As he ponders the ultimate sentence, Judge Jones can read numerous letters of support that have been submitted on Lee’s behalf. They depict her as a professor who loves her students and has a passion for serving the poor. Her devotion to medicine and saving the sick stems from her sister dying from stomach cancer and her mother succumbing to the ravages of systemic sclerosis.

The letters, from a vast array of professors and government health care officials, also document Lee’s work on the country’s emergency preparedness.

Duane Caneva, chief medical officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said that Lee has helped the National Security Council prepare for a biological attack. Lee used her models find the best public locations in large population centers to put medical dispensaries for vaccines, antitoxins and antidotes.

“She made this work free to the nation and it became a common solution used by cities … to improve their response capability,” Caneva wrote. “She … has always demonstrated passion and pride in serving the country in doing so.”

Once she is sentenced, Lee will have a felony conviction, and she worries whether that mark will prevent her from being able to do the work she wants to do next.

“I want to go back to school and go back to my students and go back to all my work,” Lee said, her voice breaking. “I have projects very important to this country, to the whole world. One project is on forced child labor — can you imagine all those kids? Another is a clinical trial for patients with pancreatic cancer. I need to be able to do this work.”