‘A little bit of everything’: UC Berkeley researchers contribute to pandemic understanding

Infographic depicting UC Berkeley discoveries after one year of COVID-19 research
Nada Lamie/Staff

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UC Berkeley researchers from different areas of expertise rose in legions to respond to the crisis by studying the coronavirus and its impacts.

Researchers across campus designed and executed new studies with unprecedented speed and urgency, and their work throughout the past year has made significant contributions to understanding the pandemic. While campus’s Innovative Genomics Institute began its diagnostic testing program, other researchers looked into mental health effects and increases in food insecurity, among other topics.

Sarah Stanley, campus infectious diseases and vaccinology associate professor, said her lab — one of three labs in the campus biosafety level 3 facility — has been involved in “a little bit of everything.” Due to the risks involved with researching COVID-19, the live coronavirus must be studied in labs like Stanley’s, which have increased precautionary measures.

Stanley said her lab realized early on that many people working on COVID-19 would eventually need to test their research with the live coronavirus. Her lab has collaborated with about 20 groups in the Bay Area to do so.

“Getting to work with all these people, I’ve learned a lot,” Stanley said. “It’s been fun. It’s been inspiring.”

Stanley’s lab is currently researching variants of the COVID-19 from around the world. She added that she and Julia Schaletzky, executive director of the campus Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, or CEND, have identified a compound that boosts Remdesivir, a molecule used to treat COVID-19.

According to Schaletzky, many pandemic-related projects in the past year were delayed by bureaucratic and “fine print” rules.

“In California, we had, for 8 weeks, minimal testing. It wasn’t because we had no testing, but we didn’t have the exact brand of swab that was used,” Schaletzky said. “There are some key elements important for (result) accuracy, but the type of cotton ball you use to shove up one’s nose is not in that category.”

Schaletzky added the typical funding model for scientific research makes it difficult for projects to quickly get off the ground, as applying for a new grant or receiving approval to repurpose an existing grant towards COVID-19 research can take months.

The National Institutes of Health, which received a large amount of COVID-19 relief funding, is not well-suited to quickly disperse money, according to Schaletzky. She said many talented researchers working on the coronavirus were new or less experienced in the field, making it harder for them to receive funding.

In an effort to help early research, Schaletzky raised $1 million to create the COVID Catalyst fund through CEND.

“We had 20 projects funded just with small amounts, but it’s enough to get started,” Schaletzky said. “It’s really eye-opening how not well suited the government apparatus is for high-risk situations.”

In addition to CEND’s grants, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS, and the Banatao Institute awarded 31 grants to COVID-19 projects on testing, ventilator innovations, contact tracing, airflow and more, according to CITRIS Health Director David Lindeman. One project tracked the coronavirus spread through wastewater in order to monitor community infection levels.

CITRIS is also working on multiple telehealth projects in an effort to reach the homebound elderly population, farmworkers and others who are not in the healthcare system or do not have access to technology, Lindeman said.

“The silver lining, if there is a silver lining to a pandemic, is that we have rapidly changed technologies and research that could have taken years,” Lindeman said. “We’ve done it in months.”

One such study that was done in a much faster timeline than usual was UC Berkeley School of Public Health professors Lisa Barcellos and Eva Harris’ study on the East Bay viral spread. Barcellos and Harris are in their third round of home COVID-19 testing, antibody testing and data collection, Barcellos added.

Results so far have indicated a fairly low prevalence of infection, but there are discrepancies between cities, Barcellos said. The research also includes information about mental health, job losses, physical health, lifestyle and health care access.

“The timeline was so short, we really had to get things rolling with a small amount of time,” Barcellos said. “The first challenge had to do with getting funding and getting approval with the campus Committee for Protection of Human Subjects. That in itself is a really huge effort.”

Campus epidemiology professor Arthur Reingold worked on human behavior aspects surrounding COVID-19. Reingold said that with the pandemic changing daily, his research team broke the campus record for revisions submitted to the Committee for Protection of Human Subjects in order to ensure the study remained relevant and doable.

Reingold noted the pandemic provides a great opportunity for researchers to contribute and a training opportunity for students, but it requires an “immense” amount of work.

“COVID-19 either replaced or supplanted or was added onto what, for most people, was already a full-time job,” Reingold said. “It certainly created opportunities, but also quite a lot of pressure to get them done quickly.”

Stanley echoed this and said her team began working on COVID-19 seven days a week to keep up with their own projects. Though overwhelming at times, she said everybody felt it was worth it.

Barcellos added that with a large research crew working on the East Bay spread study, the team had to navigate infection scares and quarantines as people traveled for the holidays.

As for the future, Schaletzky hopes the pandemic will instill an understanding that lab infrastructure and continued research on infectious diseases are necessary.

Stanley added that, for the first time, she has felt that senior administrators on campus are interested in infectious disease moving forward.

“One thing is very clear — infectious diseases are back on the map,” Schaletzky said.

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.