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This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories

Here is what our researchers are saying about COVID-19

Northeastern’s researchers are hard at work trying to learn more about the COVID-19 pandemic. Below you can find News@Northeastern’s coverage of their work as well coverage from other major media outlets.

Northeastern’s COVID-19 researchers in the Press

 

Researchers are taking aim at the counterfeit drug and medical supplies market

Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern University, works in the lab at 140 The Fenway. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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.

Left to right: Mansoor Amiji, University Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of pharmaceutical sciences, Nikos Passas, professor of criminology and criminal justice, and Ravi Sundaram, professor of computer science. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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 media@northeastern.edu.

 

Just how much contact tracing and testing do we need?

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

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.

Portraits of Ana Pastore y Piontti and Matteo Chinazzi

Left, Ana Pastore y Piontti is an associate research scientist at Northeastern. Right, Matteo Chinazzi is a senior research scientist in Northeastern’s Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems. Courtesy photo and Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“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?”

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Hair at j.hair@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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