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From Martha Pollack

Rising to the Challenge: In these extraordinary times, Cornell is following the science, and pursuing new knowledge about COVID-19


Jason Koski/UREL

By the time this issue of CAM goes to press, Cornell will have come to the end of the most extraordinary semester in its history. As I wrote to you in September, we decided last summer, based on the best available data and science, to reopen our campus this fall for residential instruction, putting in place a host of public health measures. Those measures— including extensive surveillance testing, mandated face coverings, physical distancing, campus de-densification, and many more modifications to our operations—have changed nearly every aspect of student, faculty, and staff life on campus. While life in this new normal has not been easy, our community has overwhelmingly risen to the challenge: choosing, day after day, to maintain adherence to our public health protocols, thereby enabling us to continue our entire in-person semester as planned. Thanks to the expertise and dedication of our faculty and staff, and the determination and responsible behavior of our students, Cornell’s reopening has been one of the most successful in the country, with test positivity rates that have, most weeks, hovered well below 0.1 percent.

Our reopening has enabled not only the return of most students to campus, but also the resumption of much of our research. Some research, such as projects directed at understanding and mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, has continued uninterrupted, and the number and scope of these projects are steadily expanding. In the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering of the College of Engineering, Assistant Professor Ilana Brito and colleagues are using the microbiome for insights into COVID-19: investigating the possibility that co-infections of bacteria may underlie the severity of illness associated with the virus, as happened during the 1918 influenza outbreak. In the Department of Computational Biology and the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, Associate Professor Haiyuan Yu and his lab have generated the first comprehensive map of all human protein targets of SARS-CoV-2 proteins, identifying those that underlie important steps in its life cycle and thereby identifying key drug candidates for treating COVID-19 patients. And in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the lab of Associate Professor Hector Aguilar-Carreno, which focuses on the ability of newly emerging viruses to jump from animals to humans and cause severe human disease, has successfully developed a shelf-stable vaccine that protects animals from the novel coronavirus.

At Weill Cornell Medicine, researchers are exploring why the effects of the virus can vary so widely among individuals, and the complex reasons those effects are disproportionately severe among communities of color. With the support of an NIH grant, WCM investigators have delved into the real-world data of over 11,000 COVID-19 patients across the NewYork-Presbyterian system, creating multivariate models that predict which factors are associated with severity of disease and shedding light on both the social and the biological drivers of these disparities. These projects, and many more like them across Cornell, are helping us to better understand not just this disease and this pandemic, but those that have yet to emerge.

Throughout this turbulent year, Cornell has been focused not just on keeping our campuses open and our community healthy, but on continuing to fulfill our academic mission. I am enormously grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for the creativity, dedication, and grace they have shown in these most challenging of times—and for their extraordinary commitment to safeguarding both our Cornell mission and our incomparable Cornell community.

— Martha E. Pollack