Northeastern’s COVID-19 researchers in the Press
30M tweets about COVID-19, and not all of them contain the truth. Who’s spreading misinformation?
They’re older women and mostly Republican, and they are six times more likely to share URLs from fake news domains than younger people, a new national study finds. And yet, they’re also more informedRead more
Survey finds COVID-19 test results are getting faster, but not for everyone
The average wait time has shrunk by almost two days since March, but some people are still waiting longer than others. Black and Hispanic respondents wait almost an entire day longer than white and Asian-American respondents, according to a new national survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and RutgersRead more
How has COVID-19 transformed the ‘forgotten front line’?
How has the disease affected the people who work in grocery stores, hotels, or restaurants? Paul Fombelle, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, considers these employees the “forgotten front line,” and seeks to learn more about how their jobs and lives have changed over the last six months.Read more
Flu season is coming and COVID-19 is still here. Can disease forecasts tell them apart?
Both viruses attack the respiratory system and can have similar symptoms. “Something like this is completely unprecedented,” says Alessandro Vespignani, who directs Northeastern’s Network Science Institute. “Having a major pandemic and then trying to get insight on the seasonal flu—it’s a completely new game.”Read more
Researchers are taking aim at the counterfeit drug and medical supplies market
The skyrocketing demand for COVID-19 treatment has scientists working overtime to produce medicines and vaccines. But simply creating these therapies isn’t the only hurdle facing researchers and world leaders.
Once a vaccine is developed, for example, it will inevitably be in short supply. And if rich countries continue to monopolize doses, poorer countries will be left to fend for themselves.
Situations like this fuel the counterfeit drug market, says Nikos Passas, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern. When people are desperate, they’ll take whatever treatments they can get. And that can be incredibly dangerous to people’s health.
Passas and two other Northeastern professors, Mansoor Amiji and Ravi Sundaram, are teaming up with researchers from Boston University and the University of Houston to develop techniques to disrupt the global trade of counterfeit medicines and medical equipment.
The researchers, who recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation, will use the funding to build a diverse team to tackle challenges in the counterfeit medical market during the pandemic and beyond.
“Fighting this requires a multidisciplinary approach from law enforcement to chemists to computer scientists,” says Muhammad Zaman, a biomedical engineering professor at Boston University and member of the team. Zaman’s work focuses on using technology to understand and address the counterfeit medical supplies trade.
As much as 10 percent of the world’s medicine is counterfeit, Passas says. Counterfeit drugs also account for $75 billion in losses out of a $962 billion medical supplies market and cause half a million deaths annually.
In this context, the researchers define counterfeit products as goods that falsely claim to contain ingredients or materials that treat or protect people from certain illnesses.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, for example, distribution of fake N95 masks has been a huge problem for medical professionals—the counterfeits have lower quality filtration mechanisms that don’t meet medical standards, leaving users with a false sense of security.
At their most benign, some counterfeit products are ineffective placebos. But at their worst, some counterfeits contain toxic chemicals that actively harm the user, explains Amiji, University Distinguished Professor in the departments of pharmaceutical sciences and chemical engineering.
Another long-term consequence of counterfeit drugs is the emergence of drug resistance, an existing problem that stands to be exacerbated by the use of substandard medications.
Take antibiotics, for example. “If you’re supposed to take a pill that has 250 milligrams of the drug, but the counterfeit really only has 50 milligrams, then the pathogen is only exposed to a fraction of the dose,” says Amiji. The medication won’t kill the bacteria, giving it an opportunity to develop and become resistant to the drug.
The term “counterfeit” can be interpreted a few different ways, since some knock-off products do achieve the same outcome as the original drug or equipment. But for the purposes of their research, the team will not be monitoring these types of drugs and supplies.
Instead, their main priorities are falsified goods—products that are passed off as the original without achieving any of the desired effects—as well as substandard products, stolen or smuggled goods, and price-gouged items, Passas says.
Substandard products are made by legitimate companies but lack quality control and oversight. Stolen goods are illegally obtained products that are resold into a market, while smuggled goods, whether real or counterfeit, refer to products that are introduced to a new market illicitly. Price-gouged items are those sold for extortionate prices due to high demand.
The first step in taking down the counterfeit medical supply apparatus is to follow the money, says Sundaram, team member and professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. “That’s my job, to collect data on the illicit flows of money and goods and analyze where these networks can be disrupted,” he says.
The flow of money is often easier to spot than the flow of products, so the researchers will work backwards. “Usually, if there are counterfeit goods going in one direction, there will be money flowing in the opposite direction,” Sundaram says.
Ioannis Kakadiaris, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Granz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of computer science at the University of Houston, stresses that it’s also important for the research to yield explainable and actionable information, which may one day be used by law enforcement.
“No matter what we do, if we cannot explain to law enforcement why we suspect there’s a catastrophic failure that requires an intervention, then we haven’t accomplished anything,” Kakadiaris says. “The five of us can’t enforce the law. Our job is to provide the law enforcement community with credible leads.”
Passas hopes that actors on all sides of this problem can rally together toward common goals, such as lower financial cost, rule of law, integrity, and economic development. For pharmaceutical companies, the incentive is to protect their trademarked products and their reputations as trustworthy brands. For consumers, the objective is to protect people’s health. For public authorities, it is public health and security.
“It’s really a win-win,” Passas says.
“A COVID-19 vaccine is likely to create a demand/supply problem,” he adds. “The question we’re trying to answer is: How do we bring all the stakeholders together to prioritize vulnerable populations at a price that’s affordable?”
For media inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biden may see sizable gains from mail-in ballots in several battleground states
Nearly 80 million absentee ballots are expected to be cast in the presidential contest, up sharply from 2016. That bodes well for the Democratic candidate and former vice president, a new national study finds.Read more
Pence and Harris’s low-key debate probably won’t change many voters' minds. Here's why.
The debate probably didn’t move the needle in terms of attracting undecideds, Northeastern professors observe. But with a Supreme Court nomination hearing on the way, their discussion set the stage for a looming political conflictRead more
Why does COVID-19 hit hard and fast in some places, but not others?
“The way populations are structured matters quite a bit in terms of the potential risk for sharp, intense epidemics, as compared to broader, slower-burning epidemics,” says Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor in Northeastern’s Network Science Institute.Read more
Democrats and Republicans both strongly support new round of COVID-19 pandemic aid, study says
Bipartisanship quickly ends as sharp differences continue over the price tag and where the money goes. Democrats favor aid to hospitals, schools, and the Postal Service. GOP opposes money to states and cities, researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers found.Read more
What do we know about airborne transmission of the coronavirus?
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted—and then quickly removed—new guidelines indicating that the coronavirus is airborne, leaving people confused about vital public information. Samuel Scarpino, assistant professor and head of the Emergent Epidemics Lab, explains where the science stands.Read more
Are there COVID-19 cases in your community? The answer may be in your sewer.
Researchers from Northeastern are now using wastewater to determine whether COVID-19 cases are present in a population. While this type of monitoring won’t replace coronavirus testing, it could warn city officials when the virus appears and help them prepare for outbreaks.Read more
Trust in COVID-19 vaccines aligns with political parties, new national study finds
Supporters of Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci were significantly more likely to get vaccinated than backers of President Donald Trump, researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers found.Read more
If rich countries monopolize COVID-19 vaccines, it could cause twice as many deaths as distributing them equally
Researchers from Northeastern’s Network Science Institute have partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to predict COVID-19 deaths based on two different ways of distributing vaccines.Read more
Trump’s pandemic approval ratings rise for the first time, new national study finds
The increase was small, but it was enough to reverse a continuous decline, according to a survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.Read more
Just how much contact tracing and testing do we need?
Early on in the pandemic, lockdown and physical distancing measures were able to slow the spread of COVID-19 and bring case numbers down. But as the U.S. has begun to reopen, the number of new cases has surged in many places. To reopen safely and keep from overwhelming hospital capacities, according to public health officials, we need adequate testing, contact tracing, and quarantining to stop localized outbreaks before they get out of hand.
But how much testing is enough? What percentage of people who’ve been unwittingly exposed to the virus do we need to track down? How many people will need to be quarantined?
In a recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers at Northeastern’s Network Science Institute sought to quantify these answers.
“Finding the right balance between when and how you reopen and how much you do testing and contact tracing is important, because none of those approaches alone is the optimal solution,” says Matteo Chinazzi, a senior research scientist in Northeastern’s Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems. “The optimal solution is to find a trade-off, a good mixing, between all of these different parameters.”
Using a model based on population dynamics in Boston and the surrounding areas, the group, which also included researchers from the Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Bruno Kessler Foundation, University of Washington, University of Florida, and MIT, examined three scenarios. In every scenario, they assumed that schools would remain closed for the 2019-2020 school year and through the summer.
“We are not trying here to actually represent the outbreak in the Boston metropolitan area, but to see ‘what-if’ scenarios,” says Ana Pastore y Piontti, an associate research scientist at Northeastern.
In the first scenario, there was no lockdown and the pandemic grew unabated, as expected.
In the second scenario, there was a strict lockdown, which significantly dropped case numbers, and then a staged reopening as stay-at-home orders were lifted. In the first stage, work and community locations were allowed to reopen, excluding “mass-gathering locations” such as restaurants and theaters. After four weeks, everything reopened.
While this scenario showed that the lockdown successfully brought case numbers under control, it did not stop them from resurging as people began moving around again.
“When we do nothing, basically, after we reopen, the epidemic starts increasing again and eventually the health system will collapse,” Pastore y Piontti says.
The third scenario followed a similar progression—lockdown, followed by a staged reopening—but included enhanced testing and tracing efforts as reopening occurred. The researchers assumed there would be enough testing to catch half of all symptomatic cases within two days of the onset of symptoms, and that those people and all members of their household would be isolated for two weeks.
Within this third scenario, they obtained results for three different levels of contact tracing; tracking down 0, 20, or 40 percent of non-household contacts of sick individuals and isolating those people and their households for two weeks as well.
In the best scenario, with 40 percent of contacts traced and quarantined, along with their households, the curve was flattened and there wasn’t a second surge of infections. About 9 percent of the population was in quarantine at any point in time.
“Even though those numbers don’t seem so high, logistically it’s not that easy,” Pastore y Piontti says. “It’s still better than having everybody stay home, but it’s a lot of people.”
And what about without any contact tracing? “We find that quarantining households of symptomatic individuals alone is not sufficient to substantially change the course of the epidemic,” the researchers wrote.
So we need contact tracing, too. But testing and contact tracing are most effective when case numbers are low, Chinazzi says. That’s why the models all began with a strict lockdown.
“Contact tracing is extremely important at the beginning of an outbreak, when you start having the ability to quickly identify clusters and put the fire down as soon as it starts, in a sense,” Chinazzi says. When case numbers are already out of hand, as they were, and still are, in many parts of the U.S., “you first have to try to reduce the number of circulating cases and transmission, and then you can do contact tracing and case isolation.”
The researchers specify that they did not factor in the effects of mask-wearing and physical distancing measures, which could help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But their model provides a way to help policymakers make informed choices at a local level, and understand what it will take to bring the epidemic under control.
“It’s the difference between having the list of ingredients for a recipe and actually having the quantities, in a sense,” Chinazzi says. “Maybe you know that you need testing; maybe you know that you need contact tracing; but the point is, how much? What level of the population will have to be quarantined to have that effect?”
Think everyone will be clamoring to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Think again, a new national study says.
Two-thirds of U.S. residents say they will get a vaccination when one is available, but others may not because of fears of side effects or a lack of trust in the healthcare system, a new survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers has found.Read more
Timely test results are necessary to slow the coronavirus. But a new study shows critical delays across the US.
More than 63 percent of U.S. residents are waiting longer than one to two days to get their coronavirus test results—delays that undermine the contact tracing that could identify individuals who are contagious but show no symptoms, according to results of a new survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.Read more
Face masks help prevent you from spreading the coronavirus. But can they prevent you from catching it?
The scientific evidence is growing about the importance of masks in fighting COVID-19. But one important question is whether homemade masks can protect people wearing them. The answer depends on the fit of a mask and the materials within it, research by Northeastern engineers suggests.Read more
The CDC is no longer in control of COVID-19 hospitalization data. Here’s what that means.
Under a new federal mandate, healthcare professionals will bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they report data on COVID-19 patients. “What this means is that a process that should be as largely apolitical as possible is being politicized as so many other things around this pandemic have been,” says Samuel Scarpino, who directs the Emergent Epidemics Lab at Northeastern.Read more
These new sensors can detect coronavirus particles on your breath, instantly
Instead of sticking swabs up our noses, what if we could instantly detect viral particles we breathe out? That is precisely the kind of technology that Nian Sun, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working on.Read more
‘We find ourselves asking scientists to do more than simply study the virus’
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, epidemiological models continue to provide vital information for lawmakers, public health officials, and people trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This has put the scientists who make the models in the spotlight.Read more
Why is China containing COVID-19 better than the US?
“The reduction of contacts among the population is what has really abated the epidemic in China,” says Alessandro Vespignani, who directs Northeastern’s Network Science Institute. “‘Social distancing’ works.”Read more
Our drinking water was always full of microbes. Are the wrong ones thriving in the pandemic?
It’s been months, and life has changed dramatically across the planet. Zooming in where only a microscope can see, Northeastern researchers are trying to determine how the lifestyle changes caused by COVID-19 might be helping harmful bacteria grow in our drinking water.Read more
Pandemic takes a toll on mental health of US residents, new national survey shows
As the country enters the fourth month of a “new normal” governed by public health guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, a new survey by Northeastern and other researchers shows that more than a quarter of U.S. residents “describe symptoms in a range that would be considered moderate or severe depression,” according to the report.Read more
A majority in the US supports making mail-in voting easier, new study shows
The results, which come as states across the country are planning for what could be a drastically different election in November, show that 60 percent of U.S. residents support making it easier to vote by mail.Read more
People in the US started moving around more before stay-at-home measures were lifted
Even before most states began loosening the measures intended to keep people physically distant and slow the spread of the coronavirus, people were starting to travel further and see each other more, according to research from Northeastern’s Network Science Institute.Read more
New survey shows growing partisan divide in support for reopening the US
Even as states begin to reopen, a majority of U.S. residents oppose immediate measures. But that opposition is beginning to wane among Republicans, according to new results of a national survey led by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern universities.Read more
Could a new tool for diabetes patients solve the problem of coronavirus testing?
Ming L. Wang, distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering, has been perfecting a new home testing kit to monitor diabetes using saliva. Now, he’s redesigning the sensors within it to test for SARS-CoV-2.Read more
How will the economy bounce back?
How well, and how quickly, state and federal economies recover from the COVID-19 crisis has everything to do with the choices that officials make now, says economist Alicia Sasser Modestino. “The sky is falling, but we might have some ways to put the pieces back together.”Read more
US public is 'firmly opposed' to reopening the economy immediately
A majority of people in the U.S. want to continue physical distancing measures, even as the federal government and some state governors are pushing to re-open the economy, according to a new national survey led by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, and Rutgers.Read more
The coronavirus was in the US in January. We need to understand how we missed it.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was circulating in major U.S. cities as early as January, says Alessandro Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute. And if we want to keep our communities safe going forward, we need to understand how we missed a virus that was right under our noses.Read more
Herd immunity won’t come anytime soon for COVID-19
Herd immunity is the idea that a disease can’t spread through a population once a large enough percentage is immune, either because they’ve recovered from an infection or received a vaccine. But that won’t work with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor who runs the Emergent Epidemics lab at Northeastern.Read more
Pantyhose? Toilet paper? Coffee filters? Which materials make the best masks?
The techniques Loretta Fernandez uses to study hazardous environmental pollutants could help determine the best recipe for do-it-yourself face masks to protect people from inhaling the novel coronavirus.Read more