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The Scientific Method

Wielding their expertise in a wide variety of fields, Big Red researchers tackle COVID

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Mingyu Qiao came to Cornell as a postdoc in 2017 to work in the lab of biological and environmental engineering professor Minglin Ma on a USDA-funded project to develop high-performance antimicrobial materials for agriculture and food safety. Together they invented a revolutionary technology: a thin polymer coating that can be sprayed on surfaces and enables germ-killing disinfectants to remain effective for weeks. So when the novel coronavirus began to spread around the world, Qiao and Ma wondered if their invention might help. In May, the Ithaca-based company they co-founded to commercialize the technology—Halomine Inc.—received more than $480,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation to expedite the product’s development, in the hope that it might help prevent the virus from contaminating hospitals, other public facilities, and private households. “When you’re an academic, your technology may only have one stated purpose,” says Qiao, who completed his postdoc in January and is now Halomine’s CTO, “but if it’s a very good technology, you suddenly find it has a broad application and can address some immediate crisis.”

From the Hill in Ithaca and the AgriTech campus in Geneva to Cornell Tech and the Medical College in Manhattan, researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have focused their expertise on ways to address the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is a sampling of those efforts—which include not only original research but the marshaling of existing expertise to help front-line medical workers, public health officials, and more.


The Immunity Question
Scientists worldwide are studying whether people who’ve been infected with the novel coronavirus—with or without showing symptoms—may have some level of future immunity to COVID-19; additionally, understanding how much of the population has been exposed will be vital in the fight against the disease. At Cornell Tech’s Runway Startup Postdoc Program, Rebecca Brachman and Server Ertem, PhD ’09, are collaborating with hospitals and others to develop a rapid, inexpensive, and accurate way to measure how many COVID antibodies an individual has in their blood. The technology is based on a cancer detection tool in the pipeline at Ertem’s biotech startup, Katena Oncology. “We realized that what we’ve already been developing on cancer actually had a direct correlation to how the COVID-19 virus protects itself, says Ertem, adding, “We have extensive clinical partners, and we’re working with them to validate our test as fast as possible.”

Animal Noses Inspire Mask Design
When the outbreak revealed a national shortage of medical masks, Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering in CALS, joined a multi-institution team that’s working on an open-source, 3D-printable design for a new type of mask—one that, inspired by the nasal structures of animals, captures more particles. Given the dearth of masks, Jung says, designers “need to be more flexible.” His version would also use a copper mesh material that kills viruses on contact—another improvement over current protective masks. The team received a $200,000 NSF grant, $75,000 of which went to Jung’s effort, which includes Cornell undergrads and grad students.

New Treatment Targets
Research from a Cornell collaboration points to a possible target for an antiviral treatment for COVID-19. Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Susan Daniel and Vet college virologist Gary Whittaker discovered that a certain peptide in the virus that causes COVID-19 is very similar to those in two other coronavirus strains. Since that peptide allows these viruses to infect cells, the researchers believe this points to a potential new avenue of drug therapy. “What’s exciting is we’re providing insight into how all this machinery works, which is essential for the development of new antivirals,” says Daniel. (For more, see Ezra Extra.)

Food Banks Prove Vital
With tens of millions of Americans unemployed due to the pandemic, it’s no surprise that many are struggling to feed their families. The Dyson School’s David Just is analyzing data from several sources—Google search trends, a survey from a national sample of food banks and pantries, and state-by-state tracking of COVID-19 cases—to assess the strain that the crisis has put on the U.S. food aid system. As Just notes, researchers already know that there has been a “tremendous spike” in online searches for food aid over the course of the crisis, the majority of them driven by need rather than a desire to volunteer or donate. His findings could inform how resources are allocated, now and in the future.

Fighting COVID Misinformation
A torrent of fake news has circulated about COVID-19, from phony cures to conspiracy theories about the source of the virus. Government professors Sarah Kreps and Doug Kriner are partnering to look at the spike of online medical misinformation during the pandemic, including assessing the perceived credibility of real and false claims. The two published an op-ed on the subject in Scientific American in June, reporting their initial findings that while people don’t necessarily believe COVID falsehoods, they also may be skeptical about valid information. “Believing incorrect information and not believing correct information are both problems for democracy, but for different reasons,” they write. “Even if small fractions of the public believe fake news, the consequences can be pernicious.”

Social Distancing: A Finger on the Pulse
The COVID crisis has the world in a state of anxiety and uncertainty, as many people are unsure when they’ll be able to fully resume normal life. At the ILR school, Lars Vilhuber aims to draw real-time inferences about people’s states of mind using weekly, rapid-response surveys in the U.S. and Canada, exploring how individuals are reacting to social distancing rules and business closures. Along with a colleague at Montreal’s McGill University, Vilhuber will collect responses weekly through the middle of summer. And in the College of Human Ecology, Qi Wang—chair of human development and head of the Culture and Social Cognition Lab—is leading a year-long study of the impact of social distancing on psychological well-being. Twice a week, participants from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds will record how they’ve experienced COVID-related restrictions.

COVID’s Economic and Environmental Consequences
During the pandemic, many businesses have been closed, factories and plants halted production, and far fewer people are commuting to work. To assess the environmental and economic impacts of these shutdowns, economists Panle Jia Barwick and Shanjun Li are analyzing data on air pollution, commercial activity, and household consumption in China and the U.S. “COVID-19 presents unprecedented health, economic, and social challenges,” says Li. “In order to design and implement effective policies to mitigate the negative impacts, it is critically important to understand how individuals, households, and institutions alike respond to the changing economic and social environment and regulations.”

For Workplaces, Some CU Expertise
Throughout the pandemic, it has sometimes been difficult for both businesses and employees to find expert advice about COVID-related topics in one place. To that end, the Institute for Food Safety on the Geneva campus created a comprehensive website that provides information for food processing plants, with guidance ranging from how to minimize workers’ risk to tips on cleaning and disinfecting large manufacturing facilities. The ILR school launched a similar hub that aims to help New Yorkers make sense of how COVID-19 has changed the workplace, with faculty sharing research and offering advice on everything from› employer best practices to labor relations and HR policies. Says ILR’s Ariel Avgar, PhD ’06: “The amount of data and information related to the pandemic’s impact on work is staggering.”

From Spirits to Sanitizer
When pandemic fears began to spike, disinfectants and other cleaning products quickly became scarce commodities—prompting manufacturers in related sectors to try to convert their operations as a way to fill the gap. Realizing that those well-intentioned firms needed expert guidance, Chris Gerling ’99, MS ’06, a senior Extension associate in food science at Cornell AgriTech, began advising craft distilleries across New York State on how to safely shift to manufacturing hand sanitizer. Though the Internet is full of instructional videos on how to make it at home, large-scale production isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, requiring specific supplies, techniques, and safety measures. “It’s been an interesting pivot for distilleries into this world,” says Gerling. “Making hand sanitizer is not for hobbyists; this is for professionals.”

Ranking the Risk Across New York
Risk factors such as age, living arrangements, and underlying health conditions are known to complicate COVID-19 cases. So in April, in an effort to assist county and state officials with preparedness planning, Cornell demographers produced a report that ranked the vulnerability of New York’s sixty-two counties according to those factors. Interestingly, it found that the hard-hit New York metro area actually had low vulnerability scores due to a relatively younger population with fewer underlying health conditions, while areas like the Adirondack and Chautauqua-Allegheny regions might be more susceptible due to their relatively high percentage of older and disabled residents. “If the more rural parts of the state don’t strictly follow the social distancing guidelines the governor has put in place,” says Matthew Hall, associate professor of policy analysis and management, “then the potential health consequences of a COVID outbreak are serious.”

Day-by-Day Spread, Tracked Online
An interactive website developed by a team led by engineering professor Fengqi You charts daily and cumulative totals of new cases statewide and lets users see where the curve is flattening. The site—covid19.cheme.cornell.edu—includes multimedia features showing how infections spread day by day across New York State, as well as a chart showing the number of infections per 100,000 residents for each county. “When we had to shut down our lab, we wanted to see what we could do with our expertise in systems engineering to help the public and provide timely information,” You says. 

Smartphones Mimic Contagion
Too often, policymakers are forced to rely on outdated information about the spread of coronavirus to make crucial decisions. That’s why operations research professor Shane Henderson collaborated on a simulator called “Safe Blues,” a method of collecting real-time data using smartphones. The idea is to add this digital tool to contact-tracing apps, which work by sending pings from phones with Bluetooth technology to other phones to assess their proximity and how long they remain near each other—mimicking how the actual disease might multiply. This could give health authorities more immediate feedback on whether social distancing and other measures are working. “The information we have today about how many people are infected is out of date straightaway, because there’s an incubation period while you’re waiting for the virus to be secured in a host,” says Henderson. “Safe Blues is an attempt to close the gap between our current state of knowledge and what’s really going on.”

Battling the ‘Fog of Pandemic’
During the early days of the COVID crisis, the public was hit with a barrage of conflicting information about the best ways to stay safe—creating a state of confusion and uncertainty that two Cornell communication researchers call a “fog of pandemic.” In an article in the Journal of Risk Research entitled “COVID-19: Reflections on Trust, Tradeoffs, and Preparedness,” postdoc Dominic Balog-Way and Professor Katherine McComas, PhD ’00, stress the importance of clear and transparent messaging, so the public doesn’t misinterpret vital information. For instance, some residents of lower-density communities, as well as younger people, initially assumed they were at very low risk—both to themselves and to others—and therefore didn’t need to observe distancing guidelines. Says Balog-Way: “Any message, even something as simple as ‘stay at home,’ will inevitably have unintended effects.”


Medical Matters

At the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter,
Weill Cornell confronts COVID

When COVID-19 began to spread in New York City and beyond, physicians and scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine moved quickly to focus their expertise on the new disease and its impact on the community. Doctors and nurses toiled on the front lines to aid sick patients; researchers created new tools to quantify the outbreak, fast-tracked investigations into potentially life-saving drugs, and more. “As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge, we must battle the virus on multiple fronts,” WCM Dean Augustine Choi said in mid-April, “so that we can slow the spread of infection, reduce its burden on our healthcare system, and save lives.”

Weill Cornell launched clinical trials to test medications that might prove effective against the disease, including remdesivir (an antiviral previously studied for Ebola), sarilumab (originally developed for rheumatoid arthritis), and hydroxychloroquine (an antimalarial drug). Normally such trials take months to arrange; due to the urgent circumstances, they were set up within days.

With an absence of large-scale testing nationwide, WCM faculty developed other ways to look for clues that COVID is spreading in a community. Olivier Elemento, professor of physiology and biophysics, and colleagues have been asking the public to participate in a daily online survey (found at covid19.eipm-research.org) in which they submit symptoms as well as information such as travel patterns and known exposures to infected individuals. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Hupert, associate professor of population health sciences, is using a mathematical model he created, dubbed the Cornell COVID Caseload Calculator, to forecast virus hotspots so healthcare facilities can plan for surges in patient arrivals. The work, Hupert says, could also “help health planners and political leaders find a way out of the need for social distancing and other lockdown procedures” while keeping people healthy.

Like other medical facilities, WCM had to figure out how to swiftly diagnose people who may have been infected—leading it to launch an in-house, 24/7 testing program that was able to process as many as 2,000 COVID samples a day. Additionally, Christopher Mason, associate professor of physiology and biophysics, is speeding development of a novel type of rapid-response test for COVID-19—one that uses samples from the inner cheek instead of more invasive nasal swabs. Such a test would also require less specialized equipment than current ones and could potentially process as many as 100,000 samples per day. “If we perfect these methods and make them cheap enough,” says Mason, “they’re going to be part of a broader surveillance, like a viral weather map.”

WCM researchers have also been looking at patterns among those who have been treated for coronavirus—including the disproportionate rates at which people of color are falling ill and dying. This disparity not only reflects long-standing social and economic inequities tied to race and ethnicity in the U.S., but the fact that members of racial minorities are at greater risk of exposure because they more typically hold jobs that have been designated essential during the pandemic, such as public transit and food retail. “At the level of exposure, there is a lot of inequality,” says Said Ibrahim, professor of healthcare policy and research. “Social distancing is a privilege.”

Monika Safford, MD ’86, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine and director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, has been working with colleagues to create a database of COVID patients that tallies information like race and underlying medical conditions. They’re also developing models to help predict which patients are at high risk of decline despite being initially stable. In a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine, they reported some initial observations based on the first 393 COVID-19 patients admitted to two New York City hospitals, including that patients who had to be put on ventilators were more likely to be male and to be obese. “These findings are having a big impact on patient care,” Safford says of the research effort. “They’re helping to identify which patients are likely to do the worst and need the closest monitoring.”

‘At the level of exposure, there is a lot of inequality,’ Professor Said Ibrahim says of the rates at which people of color are falling ill and dying of COVID. ‘Social distancing is a privilege.’

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