As Cook County Jail struggles to contain one of the most virulent outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts who is a detainee there wants out, saying he can help with the pandemic.
Even before Wyndham Lathem made international headlines as the target of a week-long manhunt that began after his boyfriend was discovered murdered in a River North apartment three years ago, the microbiologist had been world-renowned for his research on the bubonic plague.
Lathem, 45, has been held at the jail without bail since his arrest and lost his position as a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
But last week, the accused murderer asked a judge to free him on $1 million bail, because he said he has health conditions that will put him at greater risk if he contracts coronavirus — and because his research skills could help save lives.
“With his background and experience, Dr. Lathem is well-suited to advise and participate in studies that are aimed at understanding SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Dr. William Goldman, chair of Microbiology and Immunology at University of North Carolina, in an email appended to Lathem’s motion. “It would make sense to take advantage of as many experts as possible during this worldwide crisis that is rapidly expanding in scope.”
However, at an emergency hearing Friday, Judge Charles Burns denied granting Lathem bail, court records showed. A transcript of the hearing, conducted via teleconference, was not immediately available Monday.
Lathem’s attorney, Adam Sheppard, said his client was disappointed by the ruling. When he last talked to Lathem on Friday, Sheppard said Lathem reported feeling mild symptoms of COVID-19. Sheppard said Lathem has not called him since.
“We are deeply concerned about his health,” Sheppard said Monday. “He had been hopeful that he might get out [on bond], but he was not overly optimistic.”
As of Tuesday, 326 detainees tested positive for COVID-19, including the three inmates who died after contracting the virus. There are also 196 correctional officers who have tested positive.
Nursing staff at the jail had informally asked Lathem for advice on containing the outbreak, Sheppard said, noting in his motion one nurse had said she wished Lathem was “not in a jumpsuit.”
The health concerns that put Lathem at elevated risk for serious complications were redacted in a copy of his motion, and Sheppard declined to discuss them.
Lathem’s motion cites crowded conditions inside the jail that also were identified in a federal lawsuit by detainees over the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Lathem had been housed in the Residential Treatment Unit, where he has slept in bunks in close proximity to other detainees.
In the years before his arrest, Lathem had been granted “select agent” clearance by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which allowed him lab access to some of the world’s deadliest pathogens. Lathem had volunteered with researchers helping Madagascar deal with an outbreak of the plague just months before his arrest, and had served as chair of the American Society for Microbiology Bio-Defense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research gathering, which drew more than 1,000 researchers, public health and military officials to Washington D.C., Sheppard said.
Lathem and British national Andrew Warren allegedly murdered 26-year-old Trenton James Cornell-Duranleau in July 2017, stabbing the younger man as he lay sleeping in Lathem’s apartment. Lathem and Warren had planned the killing in the months prior in a series of email exchanges, prosecutors said.
Warren last year agreed to a 45-year prison sentence in exchange for testimony against Lathem.