Columbia Public Health Responds to the COVID-19 Pandemic

November 9, 2020

Since the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health has been working on multiple fronts to respond to the spread of the virus. Our experts are conducting research that informs the public and policymakers; collaborating with government authorities on pandemic response; advising Columbia University leadership on contingency planning; providing insights to credible news sources; and mobilizing volunteer efforts.  

Our research spans work to better understand the virus and how it is transmitted; to project its spread and identify vulnerable communities; to develop diagnostic tests and therapies; and to assess the U.S. and global health systems’ preparedness.

As of February 3, 2021, the School’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic include:


The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII), under the direction of Ian Lipkin, is currently working on rapid and reliable tests to diagnose COVID-19 and to identify sources of transmission. A new diagnostic, called the C3 Test, is ultra-sensitive, highly accurate, quickly scalable, and delivers rapid results. CII is leading studies to test how blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors can be used to prevent infections in unexposed healthcare workers and first responders, high-risk individuals, and close contacts of COVID-19 patients, and whether it can treat COVID-19 patients with severe disease. The research, which began in New York and continues in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is funded with $2.5 million in support from Amazon. A second trial for patients with mild disease, sponsored by the Skoll Foundation, is also underway in Rio de Janeiro.

Ian Lipkin and Jeffrey Shaman advised on the creation of the Pandemic Response Lab, a New York City facility dedicated to rapid processing of COVID-19 tests.

Micaela Martinez is part of a multicenter team studying characteristics of immunity in survivors.


Jeffrey ShamanWan Yang, and Sen Pei, and co-authors, published vital research on the spread of coronavirus and the effect of various policies on future cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, as well as vaccine roll-out. Their article in the journal Science reported that undetected, mild, and asymptotic cases were largely responsible for the rapid spread of the virus. They published an estimate of the number of lives lost to delayed response. Research on the vaccine roll-out has emphasized the need for continued physical distancing measures and giving priority to older adults. The research team is advising and providing projections to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York City, and various state governments.

Charles BranasAndrew Rundle, and colleagues are using Columbia Mailman projection data to publish maps of areas of the U.S. most vulnerable to surges in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Yuanjia Wang and colleagues created her own model to forecast the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Weekly forecasts produced with researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are part of the COVID-19 ensemble modeling hub used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which publishes aggregate forecasts online. Wang posts daily forecasts on GitHub.

Shing LeeKen Cheung, and colleagues developed what may be the first to compile state-level COVID-19 demographic information for age, race/ethnicity, and sex: the Demographics by State COVID-19 Reporting (DSCovR) Dashboard

Qixuan Chen and several students created the NYC Neighborhoods COVID-19 Dashboard, which provides visualizations of distributions and trends on cases, hospitalization, and deaths, along with demographic information, including age, sex, and race/ethnicity, as well as neighborhood characteristics, including demographics and disease burden.

Peter Muennig developed a cost-effectiveness model that allows the user to assess the value of adding infection control measures for COVID-19 to their university or school. The model can be modified for use in businesses.


Ezra Susser and a team of students launched a mental health study of frontline health care workers in more than 20 countries around the world. The study will survey thousands of clinicians and support staff to screen for signs of acute stress, substance use, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical symptoms and the availability of social supports.

Salim Abdool Karim has served as the lead scientific advisor to COVID-19 policy in South Africa

ICAP at Columbia, led by Wafaa El-Sadr is partnering with nations in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond to provide capacity building for healthcare workers, contact tracing, fever clinics, mobile health brigades, and more.

Wendy Chavkin and co-authors published a report on global policies to address an expected second wave of COVID-19. Jeffrey Shaman published an article on the potential for COVID-19 to become endemic.

Neetu John and colleagues in the Global Health Justice and Governance program led research in six countries that uncovered lackluster response to gender-based violence during the pandemic


Simon Anthony, who studied the distribution of coronaviruses in animal hosts through the PREDICT project, is now studying coronavirus evolution. One reason coronaviruses are prone to spillover from animals to humans is that they have the ability to evolve and acquire new traits quite easily. The research is focused on understanding how coronaviruses do this.


Diana Hernandez and Markus Hilpert testified to the New York City Council on the social and environmental determinants of COVID-19 disparities in communities of color. Hernandez and Hilpert and Micaela Martinez led a media briefing on the topic. 

Michaela Martinez published a study that finds areas in New York City with the lowest individual income and a greater percentage of non-White and/or Hispanic/Latino individuals, used the subway to a greater degree during the pandemic, and the strongest driver of subway use in communities of color was the percent of individuals in essential work.

Merlin Chowkwanyun authored a New England Journal of Medicine article about how this context is crucial to the understanding of COVID-19 disparities. 

David Bell is co-author of a study that finds social distancing and limited access to contraceptive and abortion care during the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young adults.

Andrew Rundle and colleagues have published studies on children’s elevated risk for obesity, and low-income families’ vulnerability to food and financial insecurity.

Sara Abiola is leading research on the state-level implementation of SNAP, a USDA program that provides nutrition benefits for needy families, in the context of opportunities to expand access during the pandemic. 

Dean Linda P. FriedKavita Sivaramakrishnan, and Vegard Skirbekk in the Butler Aging Center at Columbia and global partners are undertaking a global survey on how people are coping during the pandemic, including their experience of loneliness. 

Adam Sacarny co-authored an article in JAMA Health Forum arguing that Medicare reimbursement policy threatens to impede patients’ access to new therapies that are effective against COVID-19.

Research by Wil Lieberman-Cribbin, a doctoral student in environmental health sciences, is revealing neighborhood disparities in coronavirus testing in New York City. His findings were the focus of an article in the New York Times


Dean Linda P. Fried and Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP, Stephen Morse, Peter Muennig, and other faculty are advising Columbia University leadership. Columbia President Lee Bollinger commended Columbia Mailman School for its contributions

The Columbia Mailman School has transitioned to distance learning while maintaining supports for student academics and wellness online.

Marina Catallozzi was among faculty and students to organize the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, which provides opportunities for students to volunteer remotely to assist the Columbia University Irving Medical Center response to the patient surge. 

Sandra Albrecht is a member of Dear Pandemic, a group of women PhDs who disseminate evidence-based advice on coronavirus safety

Claude Mellins helped create and. co-leads CopeColumbia, which in partnership with ColumbiaDoctors and NewYork-Presbyterian, provides information and resources for the Medical Center community, including counseling sessions, peer support groups, guided meditations, suggested reading, and other resources for managing stress, fear and anxiety.

Students and faculty are working to bolster ties with local communities to assess their strengths and needs and to offer support, including by developing tools to identify reliable information on how to be healthy and safe during the pandemic and beyond.

The Office of Career Services organized a virtual career fair to connect students and employers looking to fill jobs, including for positions related to the COVID-19 response.

John Winkleman developed a hospital management simulation exercise that incorporates pandemic planning


Numerous faculty have provided expert commentary to the media and in online forums on many public health dimensions of the pandemic, such as how we can protect ourselves from infection, the stress on health systems, xenophobia and discrimination, mental health, and vulnerable groups, such as low-income Americans, incarcerated populations, children and older adults, and victims of domestic violence.