Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The Touchdown statue by Teagle Hall sports an N95 respirator on March 17. A shortage of masks and other supplies to fight the pandemic have spurred Cornell labs into donating to the cause.

March 25, 2020

How Cornell Departments Are Helping in the Fight Against Coronavirus

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With the spread of COVID-19 affecting communities across the nation — and recently even Cornell’s campus itself — a wide range of academic departments are doing what they can to help during the pandemic.

Labs in the College of Veterinary Medicine — run by Profs. Brian VanderVen and David Russell, microbiology and immunology — have donated over 600 respirator masks to Cayuga Medical Center amid a national shortage of protective medical gear.

VanderVen explained that they had started stockpiling masks earlier in the year, fearing that a future supply-chain problem could result in a lack of necessary protection for those in the lab.

However, the lab ultimately found alternate ways of protecting themselves and donated the masks to physicians on the front lines.

“We certainly could still use them,” VanderVen said. ”But the clinicians are going to need them more than us.”

The lab is still exploring ways of helping Cayuga Medical beyond its initial donation, according to VanderVen. For instance, longer-term, faculty across Cornell’s immunology department are looking at “new ways to diagnose and treat coronavirus,” he said.

Other University labs have been asked to donate supplies in the fight against COVID-19, including one run by Prof. Maureen Hanson, molecular biology, whose lab donated 3,000 pairs of nitrile gloves to be distributed as necessary by the Tompkins County Health Department.

After hearing about the nationwide mask shortage, Prof. C.C. Chu, fiber science and apparel design, emailed colleagues with an idea.

“I thought, ‘we have a design component to the department, maybe they can use their knowledge and expertise to make surgical masks?’” he said.

Beyond developing more efficient mask design, Chu hopes to see a prior research interest of his revived in the fight against the pandemic. In the late 2000s, his lab developed a family of “pseudo-protein” biomaterials that a company eventually licensed to develop synthetic vaccines.

“The synthetic vaccine technology based on my lab’s pseudo-protein biomaterials is still there,” Chu said. “If someone would have enough resources, this synthetic vaccine technology can be reactivated again to help the fast development of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Some Cornell labs are also doing their part by continuing ongoing research.

Prof. Matthew DeLisa, chemical and biomolecular engineering, said his lab is working on National Institutes of Health-funded research that could assist in efforts to better model and understand the spread of COVID-19.

“Insight gained here … could guide vaccine design and development,” DeLisa said.

DeLisa’s colleague, Prof. Susan Daniel, chemical and biomolecular engineering, runs a lab whose research is so relevant right now that she applied for an exemption that will enable her to continue work despite the campus shutdown.

“The focus of this project is to understand how coronavirus enters its host cell and specifically how the spikes that decorate the virus facilitate that entry,” Daniel explained.

Stemming from that work, her lab is now screening drugs that could inhibit the virus’ infection, developing antibodies and small molecules that could more effectively block its entry into human cells.