COVID-19 outbreak halts UC Berkeley research projects, inspires new ones

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The onset of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, has impacted the campus research community, both halting current projects and spurring new ones.

Saru Jayaraman, an assistant adjunct professor of public policy and president of national campaign One Fair Wage, has established an emergency relief fund for service workers. Other faculty members have started or are planning to work on research projects relating to COVID-19.

Since Monday, more than 30,000 people have signed up for the relief fund, and 100,000 people are expected to sign up by the weekend, according to Jayaraman.

“It’s not about stopping a pandemic like this,” Jayaraman said. “It’s about setting up systems, livable wages and a better, you know, system, social safety net, so that when things like this happen, people aren’t immediately destitute as they are right now.”

With the large dataset of workers she is developing through the relief fund, Jayaraman plans to research the effects of the pandemic on struggling workers and small businesses.

Other campus researchers are interested in conducting research on the social aspects of COVID-19. More than 70 researchers participated in a call Wednesday to discuss potential social science research questions related to the pandemic.

Topics discussed at the meeting include risk and mortality, mitigating policies and the effectiveness and consequences of current preventative measures, according to William Dow, a professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, does not have plans to conduct research relating to COVID-19, but she sees several opportunities.

“Another research question is, what are the consequences of the social isolation in a psychological perspective?” Banks said. “What does it lead to and who are the people who are most vulnerable to the psychological negative consequences of social isolation, and is it worth it in order to contain a pandemic?”

Some campus faculty are working on conducting biomedical research that involves COVID-19 testing and mitigation, according to Dow.

David Levine, a professor in the Haas School of Business, had to pause his research on hand-washing in schools and factories in India, as the establishments involved have closed because of the disease.

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, Levine is now considering pursuing projects related to the establishment of hand-washing routines in organizations like restaurants and doctors’ offices.

“I’m not sure I’ll carry out those projects,” Levine said. “I don’t have funding or partners at this point, but I am thinking about the opportunities to try to create research that would really help us understand what it takes to prevent disease from spreading.”

Justin Remais, head of the division of environmental health sciences, is looking to apply one of his current projects to COVID-19.

The project, led by postdoctoral fellow Qu Cheng, looks at the function and potential optimization of surveillance networks for detecting and responding to emerging infections.

“We are seeking to apply our approach to the optimization of surveillance networks to COVID-19, developing constrained, multi-dimensional, multi-objective, dynamic optimizations that suggest how we might better configure our surveillance of this disease to stop its spread,” Remais said in an email.

Emma Rooholfada is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.