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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) visited the College of Veterinary Medicine on Jan. 7 to discuss proposed legislation focused on pandemic response and prevention. At right are Shawna Black, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, who introduced Gillibrand, and Dr. Lorin Warnick, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of CVM.

Gillibrand visits CVM to promote pandemic legislation

Visiting the College of Veterinary Medicine on Jan. 7, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the nation should establish a network of academic medical centers focused on fighting and preventing pandemics – a proposal informed by Cornell medical and public health experts.

Gillibrand (D-New York) said her bipartisan COVID-19 and Pandemic Response Centers of Excellence Act, introduced last year with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) and developed with the help of physicians and staff at Weill Cornell Medicine, would build and support such a network. The nationwide surge of virus cases fueled by the omicron variant is a reminder, she said, that our ability to respond to public health emergencies must evolve.

“I believe the best thing we could do to strengthen our ability to respond to pandemics is to support the work of academic medical centers like the College of Veterinary Medicine here in Ithaca, and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, that are at the intersection of cutting-edge research and community care,” Gillibrand said during a press conference outside the college. “They have the theoretical and practical knowledge to help us combat COVID and future pandemics and health crises.”

The proposed legislation – also introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-New York) and U.S. Rep. John Katko (R-New York) – would award $10 million each to at least 10 academic medical centers and authorize a total of $500 million for the program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Gillibrand said the initiative would provide the resources needed to carry out critical research, patient care and community outreach while promoting collaboration and information sharing among the designated centers of excellence.

President Martha E. Pollack thanked Gillibrand for her support of pandemic relief for higher education that has provided an “absolute lifeline” to many Cornell students, and for visiting the Ithaca campus to discuss efforts “to address the long tail of COVID and to ensure that the nation is better prepared for future pandemics.”

“Not only does this legislation provide resources for academic medical centers to continue incredibly important work to combat COVID-19 and all of its variants, as well as their long-term physical and mental health effects,” Pollack said, “but it also provides a framework for these centers of excellence to stay out in front of future pandemics, protecting our local, national and global communities.”

Dr. Lorin Warnick, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory housed at the college has played an important role in the region’s response to the pandemic. In close collaboration with Cayuga Health System and the Tompkins County Health Department, the lab has processed roughly 1.8 million samples to date.

“Researchers working in the labs and the facilities behind us and out in the field are looking at … SARS-CoV-2 virus structure,” Warnick said. “They’re identifying variants, they’re looking for new vaccine technologies and they’re evaluating the susceptibility of various potential animal hosts that could play a role in transmission.”

Warnick said Gillibrand’s proposed legislation would help those teams meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and be better prepared for the future.

Dr. Alexander Travis, director of the university’s Master of Public Health program, highlighted the program’s partnership with New York state in developing the Citizen Public Health Training Program, which is helping train 100,000 New Yorkers in the basics of public health, and a first-in-the-nation program training fellows in the New York State Public Health Corps. In addition, Travis said, Cornell recently established the universitywide Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response, which he co-directs with Dr. Jay Varma, professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“With over two-thirds of all emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, coming into people from other animal species, we simply must stop the harvest of wildlife species and destruction of natural systems that put us most at risk, and work toward healthy and sustainable food systems,” Travis said. “These efforts will be critical to prevent future pandemics.”

New York State Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-125th Dist.), a former Cornell lecturer whose district includes the university’s Ithaca campus, stressed the importance of a science-based approach to pandemic prediction, preparation, protection and prevention. Cornell’s expertise in both biomedical research and public health, and its new pandemic prevention center, Kelles said, make it “a perfect location to inspire and support the drive to pass this initiative.”

Added Shawna Black, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, who introduced Gillibrand: “Our community like others around the nation and the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. We need tools to fight it.”

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Becka Bowyer