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How Scientists and STEM Professionals are Helping to Fight the New Coronavirus

Published March 25, 2020

By Alexis Clements

How Scientists and STEM Professionals are Helping to Fight the New Coronavirus
How Scientists and STEM Professionals are Helping to Fight the New Coronavirus

This is not the first global pandemic the world has faced in recent history, but the implications and impact of this new outbreak are unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Different from large-scale natural disasters, it’s not as readily apparent what people who are not on the frontlines of the healthcare system or providing essential work in other sectors can do to help, beyond self-isolating and following public health guidelines.

But as we’ve seen so often in previous times of extreme challenge, the passion, drive, and innovative thinking of scientists and STEM professionals emerges very quickly. And this new crisis is no exception.

Below is a summary of some of the ways that we’re seeing the STEM community across sectors pull together to be of service to communities around the globe who are grappling with COVID-19. We may post occasional updates to this news item as we learn about other efforts that you can participate in.

Direct Research into SARS-CoV2

From the moment the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in late 2019 and early 2020, researchers in labs around the world began racing to understand its mechanisms in order to discover how it impacts infected individuals, as well as the mechanisms by which it is spreading. Within an incredibly short period, full genomes of the new coronavirus were being published to open science platforms like NextStrain.

Now, less than three months after the outbreak began, there are a number of clinical trials underway in hospitals around the world aimed at proving which drugs might be effective in treating COVID-19, and nearly 40 companies and organizations around the world are working to develop vaccines (find a full listing of trials for treatments and vaccines here). And many researchers, including one of our Blavatnik Award honorees, Nevan Krogan, are evaluating existing drugs that could be repositioned to fight the virus.

Support for Direct Research and Outbreak Management

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, Harvard University and Broad Institute neuroscientist Michael Wells put out a call on Twitter to other scientists with the goal of building a database of US-based researchers interested in supporting efforts to manage the outbreak. Within four days he had over 5,000 people sign up, and the list has only grown since then. From those with labs and equipment to those who have the ability to evaluate biological data, it’s an impressive gathering of talent (learn more about the database and how to sign up here). Wells and those helping also put together a list of biomedical research groups that are providing local rapid response to the outbreak in the US.

Technologists and Developers

The tech sector also jumped on board quickly. The website helpwithcovid.com appears to be the most comprehensive listing of active projects and volunteers seeking to leverage digital technology to do everything from support the mental health of those in isolation to developing serological testing. In addition, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, is amassing resources to help fund start-up efforts that could support COVID-19 research and containment (find Altman's original public spreadsheet here, he is now encouraging people to be in touch directly). And here in New York City, we’re seeing some small businesses reposition themselves to provide support, including Assembyl 3D, owned by Michael Perina, who is shifting his 3D printing machines over to producing face shields for healthcare workers.

Students

Here at the Academy we know how eager young people are to help in a crisis like this. That’s why we launched an Innovation Challenge, Combating COVID-19, for high school students around the world, many of whom are now attending classes from home. The challenge started on March 25, and we can’t wait to see what the students come up with.

Sharing Advice and Perspective

We also really appreciate this fantastic thread from Francie Diep, a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, who crowdsourced advice and tips from scientists and graduate students who want to help and are unsure of what to do. This is one of the pieces of advice she offered, contributed by cellular and molecular biologist Nadia Khan from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: “Be patient. Public health agencies are juggling a lot right now and may not get back to volunteer organizers right away. It may be a while before you’re called to volunteer. ... Things are changing fast. Keep checking back for aid opportunities because if you don’t see one posted today, it may go up tomorrow.”

Not only are these efforts incredibly inspiring and energizing, they are already making a difference in this outbreak. We salute everyone in our community who is playing a part in meeting this challenge, and we are proud to support you.

If you have a high school student at home who would like to join our six-week Innovation Challenge focused on the new coronavirus, sign them up here.