Nine Ways Columbia Mailman Has Responded to the Pandemic

March 9, 2022

In March 2020, everything changed. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and governments took measures to flatten the curve. We hunkered down, we masked up, we carried on via Zoom. All the while, the Columbia Mailman School community has been on the front lines of the public health response to COVID-19.

Here are nine ways Columbia Mailman faculty, students, staff, and alumni have contributed over the last two years:

Technological Advances and Protocols. Nischay Mishra and colleagues at the Center for Infection and Immunity developed diagnostic tools, including the ultra-sensitive C3 test for SARS-CoV-2, which has been used millions of times. Their HCoV-Peptide test detects antibodies against all coronaviruses, including all SARS-CoV-2 variants, and distinguishes between immunity from infection vs. vaccination. Andrew Rundle and collaborators at Columbia Engineering designed a fever-screening technology that doubles as an early warning system for outbreaks. Faculty have also advised on pandemic safety protocols.

Modeling and Projections. From the early days of the pandemic, Jeffrey Shaman and other infectious disease modelers have published influential findings on how transmission is driven by asymptomatic carriers, the human cost of delayed response, characteristics of virus variants, and vaccine allocation. They share insights with officials on the local, state, and national level. Findings were widely publicized, including through collaborations with The New York Times and NPR. Meanwhile, John Winkleman led the development of the first pandemic simulation offered as part of training for healthcare executives

Clinical Care and Treatment Advances. Craig Spencer and other public health clinicians treated patients with COVID-19. Meanwhile, ICAP at Columbia oversaw clinical trials of a monoclonal antibody treatment for the pharmaceutical company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. Ian Lipkin at the Center for Infection and Immunity partnered with collaborators at Columbia University Irving Medical Center to lead a clinical trial of convalescent plasma for patients with severe COVID-19. The trial started in New York City and continued in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. A second trial for patients with mild disease also took place in Rio.

Communications. Ian Lipkin partnered with the writer and cast of the movie Contagion to create PSA videos in March 2020. A second PSA campaign in 2021 encouraged people to get vaccinated. Sandra Albrecht took part in a communications campaign led by women PhDs. Faculty developed visualization tools, including a map of projected burden of COVID on health systems, a dashboard with demographic data to highlighted disparities, a dashboard with data on New York City, and a map of SNAP distribution schedules to combat food insecurity. Faculty have been featured in the media thousands of times.

Community Outreach and Support. Our faculty helped launch and lead the COVID-19 Student Service Corps, providing opportunities for students to volunteer to assist with the pandemic response. Students and faculty have also worked 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. Claude Mellins created CopeColumbia to provide mental health support. The School hosted numerous expert symposia, information sessions, and training exercises.

Spotlighting Disparities and Bigotry... Our scientists reported on disparities between New York City neighborhoods in SARS-CoV-2 testing and vaccination rates, as well as the use of the subway during the lockdown. An ICAP study revealed the mental health burden of the pandemic on older New Yorkers. Another study is examining the impact on the LGBT community. The Program on Forced Migration and Health published guidelines on protecting displaced populations. Faculty webinars explored anti-Asian bigotry and violence, the socioeconomic context for COVID-19 disparities, and inequities in the vaccine roll-out.

...and the Pandemic’s Long Shadow. Our researchers have studied the various ways the pandemic has exacerbated existing health conditions. These include increases in tobacco use, firearm violence, adolescent mental health, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, adult mental health, gender-based violence, domestic violence, disruptions in school-based meal programs, and risk for childhood obesity. Ongoing research is examining the impact of the pandemic on loneliness. Meanwhile, Mady Hornig has explored the connections between Long Covid and chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis.

Local Leadership. ICAP is leading a Pandemic Response Institute to address gaps in the city’s response to COVID-19, particularly in engaging and supporting the hardest-hit communities. Wafaa El-Sadr serves on the Mayor’s Scientific Advisory Council. Wan Yang and Jeffrey Shaman have offered guidance to city health officials; the Department of Health recognized them with a 2021 Distinguished Service Award. Shaman and Ian Lipkin consulted on the creation of a rapid-testing lab run by the City. Faculty testified to the City Council on the social and environmental determinants of COVID-19 disparities.

Global Leadership. Salim Abdool Karim served as chief scientific officer on the pandemic for South Africa, guiding the country’s pandemic policies. ICAP has worked with two dozen countries in Africa and Asia, advising them on detection, prevention, and response. The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) partnered with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the government of Liberia to build capacity in response to emerging infectious diseases, as part of the CII-led Global Alliance for Pandemic Prevention. Ian Lipkin served on a Lancet Commission calling for global action to strengthen the pandemic response.