Scientists collaborate to understand the coronavirus, from how it is transmitted to the disparity of its harm
As she witnessed COVID-19 spread worldwide, Tufts Vice Provost for Research Caroline Genco knew that it would take scientists in all sorts of disciplines—from virology to psychology—to mitigate the crisis. Getting all those researchers in the same room, however, has historically been a challenge, she said.
Yet even as Tufts University had to ramp down its laboratories in early March to keep employees safe, scientists across the university came together virtually, figuring out ways that they could pivot their research to focus on COVID-19, or offering to lend their expertise to cross-disciplinary projects.
A mechanical engineering professor suggested that his work on nanoparticles could be put to use identifying viruses; a visiting scholar in the math department could use her models to forecast COVID-19 cases and recoveries. Whether they worked in medicine, engineering, sociology, dentistry, nutrition, or veterinary medicine, researchers from across Tufts’ schools stepped forward.
Genco’s office helped them form the Tufts COVID-19 Working Group, a collective of more than seventy faculty and Tufts Medical Center researchers with a singular goal: to do whatever it takes to fight back against the virus.
Through the group, researchers who might not otherwise have crossed path are now able to brainstorm over videoconferences, share ideas and data, and develop new solutions to this unprecedented problem. In just a few weeks—barely the blink of an eye in academia—members have already launched new collaborative research projects focused on the virus, secured funding, and begun gathering data.
“It’s amazing how quickly people came together. There was always a will to collaborate across schools at Tufts, but now there’s a way,” Genco said.
To get promising studies underway swiftly, Tufts University and Tufts Medical Center created the COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Funding Program, which has already awarded grants to eight projects. The studies are looking at everything from the body’s immune response to COVID-19 to gender disparities in risks and impacts of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine and a physician at Tufts Medical Center, is leading efforts to build a biorepository of specimens collected from hospitalized patients who were tested for COVID-19. Along with a database of de-identified clinical and demographic information, the biorepository will be an invaluable resource for all the COVID-19 research to come.
Exactly what sort of work are these new collaborations producing? Below, five Tufts researchers involved in the COVID-19 working group describe their studies and how they’re rising to meet the challenges of the pandemic together.
School of Engineering: Amy Pickering searches for infected surfaces
“Your hands may be raw from washing and sanitizing lately, but it’s probably for the best,” said Amy Pickering, a civil and environmental engineer at Tufts School of Engineering.
Pickering has spent much of her academic career studying how hands and commonly-touched surfaces can spread infectious disease. Her fieldwork has taken her to regions like Mali, India, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Tanzania, but for the past few months, she’s focused her efforts much closer to home.
Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pickering’s team has been combing the streets of Somerville, Massachusetts, taking weekly swabs of door handles, crosswalk buttons, and other public surfaces to measure the amount of the virus present on them. The group also makes in-person observations of people’s behavior, recording how often a particular surface is being touched, and whether those nearby are wearing masks or gloves.
“There’s a lot of research happening on surface transmission right now, but most of it is in clinical settings like hospitals. We want to provide information on virus transmission in a community setting,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to get a better understanding of which specific surfaces are contaminated with the virus so we can inform public health policy. If we find more of the virus in specific places, like ATM buttons, door handles, or parking meters, we can warn people to be more careful when touching those things.”
In addition to following the spread of COVID-19, Pickering’s team also wants to know if contaminated surfaces can serve as a sort of early warning system. By collecting samples regularly from the door handle at an office building, she posits, it may be possible to know if a potential outbreak is coming even before the virus’ fourteen-day incubation period is complete.
“I’m really interested in how pathogens are transmitted through a local environment, not just in a clinical setting,” she says. “The risk of infection in public settings seemed like a really important area that needed to be studied to inform public health guidelines as Massachusetts is re-opening.”
Cummings School: Jonathan Runstadler studies disease spread through animals
Can you catch COVID-19 from your pets? According to Jonathan Runstadler, it’s possible, though unlikely.
Runstadler is a virologist and disease ecologist at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where he studies the spread of infectious disease in animals. Since 2005, when the H5N1 flu emerged in southeast Asia, he’s been working with influenza viruses to understand how they persist and evolve in animal hosts before infecting humans—meaning that when COVID-19 arrived, he was already in an ideal position to study SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.
“There are plenty of hosts that can carry influenza viruses, like waterfowl and bird populations,” he said. ”Our past work involved taking samples from those animals, culturing the virus, working with it experimentally, and looking at its genetic sequence to better understand how it changes to move between hosts.”
When the virus hit Boston, those skills immediately put him in high demand as a collaborator. His lab currently works in one of two Biosafety Level 3 facilities at Tufts, the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory, so he’s one of the few scientists at the university who can work safely with live SARS-CoV-2 viral particles.
As part of Tufts’ COVID-19 working group, Runstadler is trying to understand the disease from a number of different perspectives. In his own work, he’s studying whether animals in close contact with humans might be able to contract and pass on the virus (a low risk, but still a possibility, he notes). He’s also collaborating with researchers at Tufts Medical Center and MIT Lincoln Laboratory to study how it may spread between humans.
When clinicians do procedures in the ICU, he notes, they’re constantly exposed to fluids and droplets of saliva from coughing or sneezing patients—but even if those fluids contain the virus, only a certain amount of its particles will be able to infect another host. Some particles may have defects or will be coated with antibodies that prevent them from activating. Runstadler and his colleagues want to measure exposure in the ICU and pinpoint the exact ways that exposure may lead to infection.
“Being part of the COVID-19 working group has been really refreshing,” he said. “For a researcher, there’s nothing better than having scientific discussions with colleagues that take you in a completely unexpected direction. It’s very exciting to make new connections with other scientists across the university.”
Tisch College: Peter Levine investigates equity in the face of a pandemic
The spread of COVID-19 has turned a spotlight on existing social disparities in the United States. In New York City, for instance, data from the height of the pandemic in April suggested that the virus disproportionately affects low-income residents and people of color.
Peter Levine, professor of citizenship and public affairs at the Tisch College of Civic Life, is working to understand these disparities. When the pandemic arrived, Levine and his colleagues were already in the midst of founding the Center for Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement at Tufts, a group that aims to understand social differences from a wide range of perspectives.
The group combines researchers from across Tufts University, and is working to create a survey about nearly every aspect of daily life—asking people how they experience things as diverse as asthma, voting, financial support for adult children, and even whether they can afford a vet for their pets. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has expanded its survey to include the broad impact of the pandemic itself—a move that will provide valuable information on how the virus affects all Americans.
The COVID-related questions on the survey range from whether individuals have been tested for the disease to whether they are working with nonprofits to address the consequences of the pandemic. These questions and the study as a whole should support a more nuanced national conversation about equity (which is not the same as equality, Levine is quick to note).
“Equality is a mathematical concept. You measure two things, they’re either equal or not. In a social context, that could be income, height, college attendance—but just because something is equal doesn’t mean fair or right,” he said. Equity, on the other hand, does address what’s fair or right. “It’s a moral dimension. The problem there is that we all disagree about what defines ‘moral’. Different political philosophies and ideologies have different definitions.”
Levine and his Tufts collaborators are hoping to offer real data to inform that debate. Together, they’re building a new website that will let the public see a vast array of equity-based data.
“We want to provide a user-friendly way to look for relationships between variables. If you click ‘Latino’ and ‘COVID,” for instance, you’ll get a plain-language explanation of the connection between the two, and can see whether Latinos are tested at the same level for COVID-19,” he said.
While that data won’t always settle deep ideological differences, it can at least support public discourse, he adds. “One way to look at it is, does the pandemic give us insights into a permanent situation that we wouldn’t otherwise have had? In other words, is it a horrible X-ray into situations that would be otherwise invisible? We don’t yet have the answers to that.”
School of Medicine: Laura Corlin looks at weather and the spread of disease
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, a weather forecast may not be the first thing that comes to mind—but local air conditions could play a major role in the spread and severity of the disease, said Laura Corlin, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts School of Medicine.
Corlin didn’t always work on infectious disease. Before the pandemic, she focused on modeling the chronic health effects of exposure to environmental toxins like particulate matter and other airborne hazards. As part of Tufts’ COVID-19 working group, however, she has started looking at those contaminants through the lens of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.
Hot, muggy weather often leads to increased smog and ozone over a region, both of which can strain the human respiratory system, she notes. For people living in places with already low air quality, the risks associated with contracting COVID-19 may actually be worse than it would be for those living under cleaner skies.
“Exposure to air pollution is associated with poor cardiovascular outcomes and other complicating factors. If someone who is already affected by poor air quality contracts COVID-19, it could have a dual effect that leads to even worse health outcomes,” she said.
This isn’t unique to COVID-19, she adds. Air quality and weather play a role in all sorts of infectious diseases, for a variety of reasons. A pathogen itself can be hearty under some temperatures or humidity levels, and weak in others; humans may behave differently under those conditions as well.
“Think about the flu or cold season. In the winter, there’s more flu transmission because people tend to be concentrated inside and weather conditions favor increased spread,” she said. At the moment, it’s not yet clear if that will be the case for COVID-19, but she hopes to tease out those connections by collaborating with other Tufts colleagues at Tufts School of Medicine and the Friedman School of Nutrition.
“Working across schools and disciplines is really important right now,” said Corlin, who is also working with Peter Levine on his equity research. “We need to have all the info we can to arm ourselves against COVID-19, and to protect more vulnerable communities from the virus. It’s been really inspiring from both a scientific and a social perspective to see how fast and how well researchers are working together in that regard. People who wouldn’t normally share research or data are doing it because it serves the greater good.”
Arts and Sciences: Heather Urry connects emotion and public health
When experts issue public health guidelines, it doesn’t always matter what they say—it’s how they say it. The tone and phrasing of recommendations to social distance and wear masks could make a major difference in whether people abide by them. So how can experts frame those messages in a way that makes people want to cooperate?
Heather Urry, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, wants to find out. She’s one of the scientists who leads the Psychological Science Accelerator, a group of more than a thousand researchers worldwide. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the accelerator put out a call for research from the group’s members, and eventually settled on three major projects: two that look at public health messaging, and one that studies ways to manage people’s negative emotions during this difficult time.
“As a psychologist, I’m of course very interested in how people are feeling and behaving during the pandemic,” she said. “But one of the most critical questions we can answer is, how do we ensure people follow the recommended public health guidelines so things don’t get worse?”
Urry, a collaborator on all three studies, is helping her colleagues at the accelerator create online surveys for future participants. One of the studies in the survey will measure participants’ feelings about the pandemic and how they regulate their emotions. The other two studies will ask whether they’d be more or less willing to adopt social distancing guidelines if phrased in a particular way.
“Is it more effective to tell people how much they have to lose if they don’t follow the recommendations, or is it better to tell them what they could preserve in their lives by following them?” she asks. “If messages are framed as supporting autonomy—that you are in charge of your own behavior and can take some control over the situation—can that increase adherence to social distancing behavior?”
At the moment, the online survey is available in English and twelve other languages, but Urry and her colleagues plan to roll them out globally. Eventually, they’ll be translated into around forty languages, she said.
“I’m really excited about this work because it has the potential to help policymakers save lives,” she said. “We should, as a society, care a lot about what strategies people and governments use to manage feelings and behaviors during a global pandemic—so many of our day to day choices are driven by the way information is given to us.”
David Levin is a Boston-based freelance science writer.