COVID-19 Research and Advocacy at UC Berkeley

University/Industry Relations

UC Berkeley researchers are rising to meet the complex challenges of COVID-19 by addressing immediate health care and engineering challenges and considering the broad societal, economic and ethical implications. They apply their interdisciplinary expertise in the hopes of ensuring an equitable recovery and offering solutions that can be scaled to benefit the world. Selected highlights of the ongoing work and perspectives are included below. Many efforts have been featured in the media, review selected coverage here. The university has also launched a new online video series, “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19”, to connect our leading experts with the public they serve, and each other.

New Inhaled COVID-19 Therapeutic Blocks Viral Replication in the Lungs

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have created a new COVID-19 therapeutic that could one day make treating SARS-CoV-2 infections as easy as using a nasal spray for allergies. In a new study published online in the journal Nature Communications, the team shows that these short snippets, called antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs), are highly effective at preventing the virus from replicating in human cells. When administered in the nose, these ASOs are also effective at preventing and treating COVID-19 infection in mice and hamsters.

Poorly Circulated Room Air Raises Potential Exposure to Contaminants by up to 6 Times

Having good room ventilation to dilute and disperse indoor air pollutants has long been recognized, and with the COVID-19 pandemic its importance has become all the more heightened. But new experiments by indoor air researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) show that certain circumstances will result in poor mixing of room air, meaning airborne contaminants may not be effectively dispersed and removed by building level ventilation.

Largest study of its kind finds face masks reduce COVID-19

Wearing face masks, particularly surgical masks, is truly effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in community settings, finds a new study led by researchers from Yale University, Stanford Medical School, the University of California, Berkeley, and the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA).

Using two CRISPR enzymes, a COVID diagnostic in only 20 minutes

Frequent, rapid testing for COVID-19 is critical to controlling the spread of outbreaks, especially as new, more transmissible variants emerge. A research team at the UC, Berkeley is aiming to develop a diagnostic test that is much faster and easier to deploy than the gold standard qRT-PCR diagnostic test. The team has now combined two different types of CRISPR enzymes to create an assay that can detect small amounts of viral RNA in less than an hour.

Overcoming pandemic cave syndrome: Why is it so complicated?

For U.S. workers and students who have toiled remotely in isolation or in pods for the past year and a half, reentering offices, classrooms and other old stomping grounds, starting this fall, is likely to range from exhilarating to downright nerve-wracking.

Analysis reveals global ‘hot spots’ where new coronaviruses may emerge

Global land-use changes are creating “hot spots” favorable for bats that carry coronaviruses and where conditions are ripe for the diseases to jump from bats to humans, finds an analysis published this week by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the Politecnico di Milano (Polytechnic University of Milan) and Massey University of New Zealand.

Are renters — and the U.S. economy — hurtling toward an ‘eviction cliff’?

Schools and businesses are reopening, diners are returning to restaurants, and fans are returning to sports stadiums, but a new crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic may be just weeks away: the possible eviction of millions of Americans who have fallen behind in their rent. When massive job losses and other pandemic-driven economic pressures left many renters unable to pay and accumulating debt to their landlords, the federal government and some states set moratoria that blocked evictions. Now the U.S. ban is set to expire on June 30, and UC Berkeley housing experts are warning of a potential surge of evictions and homelessness, along with damaging economic shock waves.

After COVID-19, work will never be ‘normal’ again

A year ago, just after Bay Area governments imposed a shelter-in-place order to check the spread of a mysterious new coronavirus, Cristina Banks worried about how she would work from home. She would miss her office at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She would miss interacting with colleagues and students. She would miss her books and her papers. Banks directs the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, a global research center at Berkeley, and even in the ¬surpassing strangeness of the past year, she has continued to observe and analyze how the pandemic is changing our work — and changing us.

Prioritizing oldest for COVID-19 vaccines saves more lives, years of life

Challenging the idea that older people with shorter life expectancies should rank lower in coronavirus immunization efforts, new UC Berkeley research shows that giving vaccine priority to those most at risk of dying from COVID-19 will save the maximum number of lives, and their potential or future years of life.

Latinx, Native Americans carry heavier pandemic burden, new poll reports

Voters of color in California — especially Latinx and Native American people — face disproportionate risks during the coronavirus pandemic and are far more worried than white voters about job and income loss and access to medical care, according to a new poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS).

California Republicans less likely to seek COVID vaccine, poll reports

As California struggles to bring the deadly COVID-19 pandemic under control, the state’s Republican voters are far less likely to seek a vaccine and express less support for small businesses, health care workers and other at-risk workers, according to a new poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS).

Can hepatitis C drugs help remdesivir fight COVID-19?

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, only one antiviral drug, remdesivir, has been approved in the United States for treatment of COVID-19, but it barely works and is toxic to the liver. Researchers at UC Berkeley have found 20 compounds that, in combination with remdesivir, are much better than remdesivir alone in protecting human lung cells from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

More infectious COVID variant detected in Berkeley

A more transmissible variant of the coronavirus, first detected in the United Kingdom, has shown up in two UC Berkeley students, as the state announced at least 133 new cases of the variant statewide. The appearance of the new variant, which appears to be about 50% more infectious than earlier variants, reinforces the need to take very seriously public health precautions to prevent spread: wear a mask when around other people, keep at least six feet apart and wash your hands frequently.

This Anti-COVID Mask Design Breaks the Mold

In the early days of the pandemic, amidst all the uncertainty, one thing was for sure: N95 masks were in short supply. So when materials scientists Jeff Urban and Peter Hosemann heard that a local HMO needed advice on N95 alternatives, they immediately knew what to do: Design a better mask.

California farmworkers hit hard by COVID-19, study finds

Many farmworkers who plant and harvest our food are forced to live and work under conditions that are ripe for transmission of COVID-19. During the summer harvest season, coronavirus outbreaks popped up across the nation among farmworkers in agricultural communities, including many in California.

UC Berkeley launches pop-up lab to monitor Bay Area sewage for COVID-19

Since the discovery that people infected with COVID-19 often shed the virus in their feces, scientists around the world have scrambled to spot signs of the virus in the stuff that we flush. However, detecting tiny virus particles amid the wastewater that flows through our sewage pipes — which includes not only toilet water, but sink water, shower water and everything else that goes down a drain — is no easy feat.

An expert on 'undruggable' targets tackles the coronavirus

Throughout the grim reality of a global pandemic that has disrupted normal life for months, one persistent bright spot has been the robust response of the biomedical research community. The battle to develop vaccines and drugs to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19, the disease which it causes, has highlighted the tremendous benefits of investing in science aimed at developing innovative research platforms and tools. When a new disease like COVID-19 arises, such platforms and tools developed for other purposes can be quickly pivoted to provide solutions to the emerging threat.

For an effective COVID vaccine, look beyond antibodies to T-cells

More than 100 companies have rushed into vaccine development against COVID-19 as the U.S. government pushes for a vaccine rollout at “warp speed” — possibly by the end of the year — but the bar set for an effective, long-lasting vaccine is far too low and may prove dangerous, according to Marc Hellerstein of the University of California, Berkeley.

US COVID-19 Cases May Be Substantially Underestimated

The United States may have experienced more than 6.4 million cases of COVID-19 by April 18, 2020, according to a probability analysis conducted by UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers and published in Nature Communications. That is nine time more than the number of confirmed cases in the same period, which was 721,245.

Demographers put COVID-19 death toll into perspective

With over 170,000 COVID-19 deaths to date, and 1,000 more each day, America’s life expectancy may appear to be plummeting. But in estimating the magnitude of the pandemic, UC Berkeley demographers have found that COVID-19 is likely to shorten the average U.S. lifespan in 2020 by only about a year.

Safe Bay Area school reopenings may be possible with stringent social-distancing measures and reductions in community transmission

As the fall school semester is nearly underway, discussions are intensifying on whether, and how, to reopen schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A new study, led by researchers at UC Berkeley, finds that in-person classes in the Bay Area may be possible for elementary schools, but only if schools can successfully limit contact between students from different classes. In contrast, remote learning may be the only safe option for middle and high schools until community transmission is dramatically lowered.

From lung scarring to heart damage, COVID-19 may leave lingering marks

For some individuals with COVID-19, recovering from the acute phase of the infection is only the beginning. Worrying reports now indicate that the virus may be capable of inflicting long-lasting damage to the lungs, heart and nervous system, and researchers are closely watching to see if the kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract may be susceptible to persistent damage as well. 

COVID-19 shows fraying U.S. safety net, Berkeley scholars say

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty, and despite strong government efforts to address human needs, continued support and bold policy are essential for the months ahead, top scholars said during a recent event at UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley launches trial of saliva test for COVID-19

Scientists from the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), the same UC Berkeley group that rapidly popped up a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing laboratory in March, are now trialing a quicker way to obtain patient samples: through saliva.

Remembering the history of polio can help in finding a coronavirus vaccine

On a spring morning in 1955, a pair of press officers greeted a mob of reporters in a stately hall on the University of Michigan campus. The officers had hot news: A clinical trial of the long-awaited polio vaccine had proved it to be safe and effective. The reporters nearly rioted in their scramble to spread the word. Once they did, church bells rang, and people ran into the streets to cheer.

COVID-19 has already cost California insurers $2.4 billion, new study estimates

The COVID-19 pandemic has cost California’s public and private insurers an estimated $2.4 billion dollars in testing and treatment — about six times the annual cost to treat seasonal influenza in the state, according to a new study by researchers at the Nicholas C. Petris Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

Monitoring COVID-19 prevalence in municipal wastewater

Current efforts to track the spread of COVID-19 have largely relied on individual testing and hospital admission numbers. However, these data do not detect trends in the virus’s spread in the greater population, including those who are asymptomatic.

Four Berkeley engineers receive awards for COVID-19 research

The newly formed research consortium Digital Transformation Institute has made awards to 26 research projects led by top scientists and engineers to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of the recipients have faculty appointments at UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering.

Pandemic could decimate environmental, outdoor science education programs

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the survival of organizations nationwide that provide critical outdoor environmental and science education to K-12 students, with an alarming 63% of such groups uncertain about their ability to ever reopen their doors, according to a study released this week by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Of virulent viruses and reservoir hosts

As the public health community races to contain the current global pandemic, researchers are working diligently to understand the novel coronavirus. Such efforts cross many facets of scientific research — from virology to wildlife ecology to medicine — with the ultimate hope of containing the virus and developing a vaccine.

COVID-19 in the global south: Economic impacts and recovery

COVID-19 is threatening the health and economic security of communities around the world, with dire implications for those living in poverty. As the pandemic unfolds, the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) is committed to sharing practical insights that can support evidence-based responses in the Global South.

Emergency COVID-19 measures prevented more than 500 million infections, study finds

Emergency health measures implemented in six major countries have “significantly and substantially slowed” the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to research from a UC Berkeley team published today in the journal "Nature". The findings come as leaders worldwide struggle to balance the enormous and highly visible economic costs of emergency health measures against their public health benefits, which are difficult to see.

Campus lab takes COVID-19 testing to utility workers, underserved

A month after opening, a COVID-19 testing lab at the University of California, Berkeley, has branched out from evaluating symptomatic students to assessing a broader range of people potentially exposed to the new coronavirus, including residents of local nursing homes, the East Bay’s homeless population, front-line firefighters and police officers and, now, utility workers around the state.

COVID-19 and the media: The role of journalism in a global pandemic

To inform the public during these uncertain times, newsrooms across the country have made pandemic coverage a priority. But the ever-changing and sometimes unverified nature of COVID-19 data being released has left journalists and researchers with challenges in providing accurate information to the public.

The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our healthcare delivery system

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the country, it has brought unprecedented strain on hospitals and clinics, from a shortage of testing and medical supplies to issues in access among rural and underserved populations. The disease has put a spotlight on some of these inequities, while also revealing holes in the healthcare delivery system that can have lasting side effects on patients and providers.

Financial impacts of COVID-19 on higher education in California

In the last twenty years, California’s 10-campus University of California system and 23-campus state university system have seen significant declines in financial support from the state’s politicians, a trend that will only become more worrisome as California responds to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn.

Looking forward: How can we safely reopen the economy?

Pressure is mounting to reopen the economy, and some locales are rushing to do so. Deciding how and when it’s safe for people to return to work, school, and public life is a complex topic that involves implementing widespread testing; accurate assessment of exposure risks; ensuring health care system capacity; putting in place procedures and routines to protect workers; setting guidelines for mass behavior changes; and restoring public trust. How can we go about making these decisions and getting plans in place?

Election 2020: The pandemic changes everything

The streets are largely empty. People are secluded in their homes, forced to seek haven from a deadly virus. With shops, factories and offices closed, the economy is tottering. Voters arrive in protective masks to cast primary election ballots, while other primaries have been postponed or canceled. Protesters, meanwhile, gather at state capitols, demanding a return to normalcy — and some of them are armed.

What COVID-19 antibody tests can tell us, and what they can’t

As the United States and much of the world move toward relaxing shelter-in-place restrictions to let people move about more freely, public health experts hope to rely on antibody tests to determine who has been infected with the COVID-19 virus and may be immune — at least temporarily — and who is still susceptible.

Calm amid COVID-19: Gratitude

In the third in a series of short videos, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner talks about the benefits of practicing gratitude. Expressing appreciation is a key component of Keltner’s Science of Happiness course, which he has taught to inmates at San Quentin State Prison, among thousands of other students.

Urban slums are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. Here’s how to help

Government-enforced social isolation may help relatively affluent populations limit the spread of COVID-19, but these measures can be devastating for the nearly 1 billion people around the globe currently dwelling in urban slums, where physical space is scarce, and many rely on daily wage labor for survival.

Climate change and COVID-19: Can this crisis shift the paradigm?

Ever so slowly, communities around the globe are cautiously easing shelter-in-place orders, and people are heading back to work — bringing with them damaging behaviors that hurt the environment and impact climate change, such as increased reliance on single-use plastic grocery bags.

Understanding and seeking equity amid COVID-19

In today’s Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 event, Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society and dean of the School of Information, spoke with three UC Berkeley experts about how relying on data and algorithms to guide pandemic response may actually serve to perpetuate these inequities — and what researchers and data scientists can do to reverse the patterns.

Cal Students Launch Resource 19 to Connect Creators with Hospitals in Need

Healthcare workers across the globe are facing dire shortages of critical equipment needed to treat the coronavirus. Each day, news outlets show images of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals struggling with inadequate or non-existent PPE (personal protective equipment). The public is left at home wondering what can be done to help.

Health center expands testing for those with COVID-19 symptoms

With the University of California, Berkeley’s COVID-19 diagnostic lab up and running, University Health Services (UHS) is expanding its coronavirus testing for symptomatic students, aiming for a 24-hour turnaround that will allow medical staff to better manage patients and help them understand the extent of infection in the campus community.

Coronavirus: science and solutions

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate communities around the world, researchers at UC Berkeley are racing to find solutions that will both secure our health and help get the economy back on its feet.

Calm amid COVID-19: Compassion

In the second in a series of short videos, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner discusses the benefits of compassion for others and ourselves.

Looming nightmare in mortgage industry, experts warn

Berkeley Haas Professors Nancy Wallace and Richard Stanton were some of the few voices to forewarn of the massive risk posed by shoddy practices in the mortgage industry prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself.

COVID-19: Economic impact, human solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic is confronting every level of the U.S. economy with an unprecedented challenge, and the government must mount a sustained, ambitious economic response lasting months and perhaps years, UC Berkeley economists said in an online forum today.

COVID-19’s unequal toll on black Americans: A Q&A with Tina Sacks

The recently-released data are shocking: COVID-19 is infecting and killing black people at an alarmingly high rate. An Associated Press analysis — one of the first attempts to examine the racial disparities of COVID-19 cases and deaths nationwide — has found that, of nearly 3,300 of the 13,000 deaths so far, about 42% of the deceased were African American. Black Americans account for about 21% of the total population in the areas covered by the AP analysis.

Economic fix: Deliver aid to as many as possible — fast

Congress and President Donald Trump have approved a gargantuan $2 trillion stimulus package to protect businesses, workers and the economy, but UC Berkeley economist Hilary Hoynes says the next step may be more difficult: administering the relief programs so that government funds get to vulnerable Americans as fast as possible.

Racist harassment of Asian health care workers won’t cure coronavirus

Violent hate crimes against Asian Americans have surged across the United States recently due to xenophobic perceptions that all Asian people are carriers of COVID-19. But some forms of harassment have been directed specifically at the Asian physicians and nurses risking their own health and safety to battle the spread of the virus in hospitals across the country.

Creating informed responses: Berkeley’s computing and data science in action

In a live webcast on Tuesday, April 7, an interdisciplinary cast of Berkeley faculty members joined Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and Michael Lu, dean of Berkeley’s School of Public Health, to discuss how data is guiding our society’s response to the pandemic and how more and better data is needed to help us emerge from the crisis.

SCET launches COVID-RX program to help companies adapt

The University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s premier public universities and worldwide center for innovation, is taking a leading role in response to the COVID-19 health crisis and is convening industry and its vast internal expertise to launch real time initiatives to help firms accelerate and adapt to the new environment. With its new COVID-RX initiative, the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SCET) will be conducting targeted projects in partnership with leading companies to focus on adapting and innovating under adversity.

COVID-19 stimulus is a good start, but more is needed, says Berkeley economist

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have taken strong first steps to provide economic support to businesses and their workers suffering from COVID-19-related shutdowns and unemployment, said Jesse Rothstein, UC Berkeley professor of public policy and economics. But Rothstein advised that more will be needed to protect vulnerable small businesses and employees from the impact of the pandemic.

CITRIS Invention Lab opens to produce COVID-19 supplies

While UC Berkeley observes California’s shelter-in-place order, with most research labs shuttered, the CITRIS Invention Lab has received a rare exemption to operate the makerspace to fabricate products and prototypes designed to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, including Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), ventilator adaptors, and materials needed by campus researchers. 

Returning used N95 masks to duty quickly — and safely

Bioengineering professor Amy Herr is part of a multi-university research consortium, N95Decon, providing a scientific consensus on existing and emerging decontamination methods. The consortium is assessing existing research, designing new systems and — importantly — actively debunking misinformation, with the goal of providing healthcare staff with scientifically proven ways to more safely reuse the masks.

Getting the right equipment to the right people

Hospitals are suffering from an acute shortage of emergency medical supplies, including masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators. However, the medical industry is struggling to determine the places that need them the most. Bin Yu, a professor of statistics and of electrical engineering and computer sciences, is working with nonprofit organization Response4Life to connect suppliers with hospitals in need.

UC Berkeley scientists spin up a robotic COVID-19 testing lab

As doctors around the country scramble to diagnose cases of COVID-19, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) are creating from scratch a diagnostic lab with the capability to process more than 1,000 patient samples per day.

International group of researchers race to find treatment for COVID-19

The international team of researchers is testing an unusual new approach to identify potential antiviral drugs with proven efficacy to treat SARS-Cov-2 infections. Given the world crisis, the strategy of testing known/approved drugs could help reduce the numbers of deaths in the near term while the world health community battles the epidemic.

Coronavirus skeptics, deniers: Why some of us stick to deadly beliefs

Many young adults are defying the 6-feet-apart social distancing rules. What causes certain people to stick to their beliefs and act with skepticism despite overwhelming contradictory evidence? Berkeley News asked Celeste Kidd, a UC Berkeley computational cognitive scientist who studies false beliefs, curiosity and learning.

COVID-19 first target of new AI research consortium

The University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) are the headquarters of a bold new research consortium established by enterprise AI software company to leverage the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the internet of things (IoT) to transform societal-scale systems.

With testing still limited, coronavirus remains a ‘moving target’

In a new interview, Swartzberg underscores the fact that — in part due to poor leadership by the executive branch of our government, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which failed to deliver adequate testing on time — we still don’t have enough data on the virus to really know how widespread the disease will ultimately become, or how long these drastic social distancing measures will last. But, he says, preventing transmission through hygiene and limited social contact remain crucial to avoid overloading our hospital system.

Clean hands save lives, so wash up, Berkeley expert says

You don’t have to remind David Levine, UC Berkeley professor of business administration, to carry hand sanitizer and wash his hands thoroughly with soap. But why do many of us — from children to adults — lack these habits, even in a pandemic?

America’s health insurance gaps could speed spread of coronavirus

While public health officials and policymakers race to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the United States, they must also grapple with a daunting reality: Approximately 27 million Americans, or about 9% of the population, live without any form of health insurance. In the state of California, those without insurance number about 3 million and about 7.5% of the population.

Echoes of Mengele and Tuskegee, this time in Guatemala

Medical historian Susan Reverby, who first revealed postwar U.S. government medical experiments on Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients, said the story “fits the trope of a grade-B horror move.” But she warned a Berkeley audience that it’s “too easy” to distance ourselves from those who conducted the research.