Gary Whittaker, professor of microbiology and immunology, in the lab engaged in virus research.

Cornell experts view coronavirus via multidisciplinary lenses

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted lives and institutions around the world in numerous ways, and Cornell faculty members have shared their expertise on everything from the virus itself, to workplace issues such as personal hygiene and paid sick leave, to expected disruptions to supply chains, and local and global economies.

It all starts with the virus, which originated in animals before it jumped to people and became communicable from person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early reports claimed that human infection of COVID-19 began in a so-called “wet market” – places that sell terrestrial and aquatic wildlife from around the world for human consumption.

Steve Osofsky, professor of wildlife health and health policy at College of Veterinary Medicine, said the time has come to shut down wet markets for good.

“We can no longer ignore the fact that the enormous risks and costs to all of us exceed the benefits flowing to a subset of people involved in this trade – much of which is also, by the way, illegal,” Osofsky said.

Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said in an op-ed in The Hill that 75% of emerging infectious diseases (EID) originate in animals. She advocates for a multipronged and holistic “One Health” approach that addresses “trade and illegal harvest of wildlife, land use changes that promote the emergence of EIDs and the need for targeted global surveillance to identify novel pathogens,” she wrote.

The disease is spreading, but a coronavirus vaccine for public distribution is not imminent, said Gary Whittaker, Cornell professor of virology at the College of Veterinary Medicine and an expert on coronaviruses. He did say an antiviral drug, remdesivir, currently in clinical trials, has shown potential as a treatment.

“All viruses need to gain access into host cells to infect, and how they do this can [give researchers insights to] control disease,” Whittaker said. “Coronaviruses … are particularly flexible in how they can enter cells, which makes them especially problematic as emerging viruses.”

In order to limit spread, the need to quarantine and maintain “social distance” creates unique pressures on global and U.S. workforces. Such practices can be devastating for employees, who can’t afford to take time off when they are not earning a paycheck.

Paid sick leave under such circumstances may be necessary for the success of such disease containment strategies, said Nicolas Ziebarth, professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology. Ziebarth studies the interaction of social insurance systems with labor markets and population health.

Help is especially important for low-wage earners, part-time employees and those working in hospitality and service center sector jobs, who do not get paid sick leave and have no choice but to go to work sick.

Ziebarth’s research has shown paid sick leave has significantly reduced infection rates for influenza-like illnesses. Based on the research, Ziebarth said to The Washington Post, mandated sick pay “would definitely slow down the spread of the disease, which is crucial in these times.”

Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at the ILR School, shared basic tips on how to minimize the potential for virus spreading in the workplace. These include staying home when sick, good handwashing techniques, keeping surfaces clean, coughing into one’s elbow, social distancing and precautions for people handling food.

At the same time, business supply chains, especially in grocery stores, are already showing signs of strain.

“So far, there are no U.S. internal transportation restrictions, and we don’t expect them,” said Elena Belavina, associate professor of applied economics at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “But if things get there, we can expect significant disruption of grocery supplies. Particularly fresh fruit and vegetables supplies to the Northeast might be severely disrupted.”

She added that “the biggest risks and disruptions will likely come due to consumer hoarding and panic buying.”

“Panic buying is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Karan Girotra, a professor at Cornell Tech and at Cornell SC Johnson, said in an interview with USA Today.

In terms of the global economy, countries are already experiencing difficulties maintaining business as usual.

“This outbreak will have a significant effect on worldwide demand for tourism, travel and other services, while the supply chain disruptions and increased uncertainty will hurt current production as well as investment,” Eswar Prasad, the Nandlal P. Tolani Senior Professor of Trade Policy at Cornell SC Johnson, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Many forecasters anticipate that the spread of COVID-19 will mean no profit growth for companies this year. But Scott Yonker, associate professor of finance in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, believes that the economy will stabilize over time.

“To be honest, one year of flat earnings growth doesn’t matter a whole lot,” he said in an interview with Marketplace.

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Abby Butler