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College, university experts discuss state of pandemic

Cornell alumni and parents have donated thousands of pounds of personal protection equipment.

Faculty have mobilized their contacts around the world to help Cornell students and friends get home before borders closed.

And as students readied to leave Ithaca, they donated blood at Red Cross stations set up on West Campus.

These were a few examples of Cornell altruism described by Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs, who moderated a virtual panel of Cornell experts, “COVID-19: Origin, Response Management, and Impact on the Global Economy,” March 24. The online discussion, which had an audience of 3,000, was replayed March 28.

“We need more connection, not less; more sharing of information, more collaboration on possible solutions, more multicultural understanding and collaboration, not less,” said Wolford, the Robert A. and Ruth E. Polson Professor of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “As challenging as this moment is, it offers us the opportunity to think about what sort of world we want to walk back into after the virus has passed.”

Alex Travis, director of public health at the Baker Institute for Animal Health and professor of reproductive biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed the importance of One Health, which Travis said is “a philosophy that says that the health of humans depends on the health of the environment.”

In the past 70 years, Travis said, two out of three emerging diseases have entered human populations from animals. Harvesting bush meat and the use of wet markets – live-animal markets that occur worldwide – greatly raise the risk of diseases jumping from animals to human populations, he said.

An imperfect food system, difficult economic conditions and poor global biodiversity conservation policies combined to “create a perfect storm” for the emergence of COVID-19, he said.

“People sometimes say that as a society, we can’t afford to protect biodiversity or pay attention to things like climate change, because we need to worry about jobs and the economy,” Travis said. “And if COVID-19 teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t afford not to pay attention to how we interact with the environment.” 

“All human coronaviruses originate in bats,” said Gary Whittaker, professor of virology at the College of Veterinary Medicine and an expert on coronaviruses, who said the animals act as a natural reservoir or host where the virus persists. There have been seven known human coronaviruses – including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, identified in 2003), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, first reported in 2012) and now SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Whittaker said.

“As challenging as this moment is, it offers us the opportunity to think about what sort of world we want to walk back into after the virus has passed.”

Wendy Wolford

With SARS in 2002, he said, the bat virus evolved to infect raccoon dogs and palm civets before being transmitted to humans. With SARS-CoV-2, scientists are still trying to determine if and how scaly anteaters called pangolins, sold in wet markets, may have played a role in the virus’s jump from bats to humans, Whittaker said.

Lorraine Francis, a lecturer of population medicine and diagnostic science in the College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions – individual and collective actions to limit the spread of the virus in one’s community. Individuals can protect themselves and others by washing hands, sneezing or coughing into a sleeve or tissue, and keeping a distance of 6 feet from others.

Community-level interventions such as social distancing, closing schools and businesses, and avoiding groups are all important, Francis said.

“Community mitigation strategies … are the best defense that a locality will have against the spread of the pandemic,” because they help “flatten the curve” – to slow rapid increases in cases that threaten to overwhelm health care systems, Francis said. 

The pandemic has taught public health practitioners about the importance of early detection of outbreaks, the value of effective communication to the public and the need for research and development, she said.

Mathematical modeling is another way public health professionals can gain insight into potential future scenarios for the disease. Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, associate professor of health care policy and research and of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been serving as an adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, providing them with the outputs of both epidemiological and health care operations models.

He is also part of an international collaboration, based at The University of Oxford, that will soon release a 152-country web-based model, the COVID-19 International Model, using online data to assist countries around the world.

While all mathematical models are based on many constantly changing factors, they can help leaders in a crisis by improving understanding of the problem at hand. And while COVID models can inform policy decisions and help prepare health care systems, “it’s really important to remember that there are still no generally accepted modeling approaches or outputs that produce a definitive or even a consensus future epidemic curve of the spread and the clinical impact of this virus causing COVID-19 disease in the U.S.,” Hupert said. “There is no crystal ball.”

In addition to its public health impact, the pandemic has taken a great toll on the economy, said Eswar Prasad, the Nandlal P. Tolani Senior Professor of International Trade Policy in the Dyson School.

“We are living through an extraordinary economic event” that has shut down major economies and shocked global supply chains and consumer demand in unprecedented ways, said Prasad, who outlined three questions moving forward: “First, how did we get here? Second, how bad is it going to get? And third, how do we get out of this?”

Prasad said that while the public health dimension should take precedence, governments face a number of risks in restarting the economy once the disease is under control. Governments everywhere will need to share research and public health information, work closely with central banks, and rebuild business and consumer confidence, he said.

“That’s going to take a concerted set of actions by our leaders around the world,” Prasad said. “Each of us is going to have a role to play at the local, regional, state, national and international levels to bring things back under control.”

The event was supported by the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Graduate School Master of Public Health Program, the SC Johnson College of Business, the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, and Alumni Affairs and Development. 

By Krishna Ramanujan

A version of this story appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.