Two Rutgers-Camden Researchers Examine Origins of COVID-19 and Possible Future Mutations, Create Tools to Assess Impacts of Different Social Distancing Levels and Travel Restrictions to Guide Policy

Two Rutgers–Camden professors are leading projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to combat COVID-19. The first, Andrey Grigoriev, a biology professor and founding director of the Rutgers–Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, has been awarded a $188,253 NSF Rapid Response Research grant to study the origins of COVID-19 to anticipate how to stop its future mutations. The second, mathematics professor Benedetto Piccoli, is sharing a grant with researchers at Cornell and Vanderbilt universities to create a tool to help mayors and governors assess the impacts of different social distancing levels and travel restrictions.

Head shot of Andrey Grigoriev
Andrey Grigoriev

Research conducted by Grigoriev’s team, which includes Rutgers–Camden undergraduate and graduate students, aims to help shed light on how to combat COVID-19 and how the virus can spread. Work includes searching for and interpreting variants in many genomes, including viruses and their hosts.

“We are looking a few steps ahead in this battle with the virus,” Grigoriev said. “Coronaviruses have been infecting people and animals for many years, and we only learned about the deadly representatives of this virus family 18 years ago. Sadly, new coronaviruses are very likely to come along again. The good news is that despite their different pathogenicity, the members of this family have similar biology. If we can understand it in detail now, we will be more prepared for another possible pandemic.”

Piccoli, the Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair Professor of Mathematics and vice chancellor for research at Rutgers‒Camden, is collaborating with engineering and computer science professors from Cornell and Vanderbilt universities to develop a mathematical model that government officials could use to manage human mobility during a pandemic or another crisis. Using publicly available data, the tool will simulate the effect of the spread of a virus in a particular geographical area by assessing the effect of transportation systems and evaluating the effect of strategic lockdowns and closures.

Head shot of Benedetto Piccoli
Benedetto Piccoli

In his Rutgers‒Camden lab, Piccoli and his team are working on designing the models and running simulations. The current version of the model includes an economic evaluation of the impact of combined policies for lockdowns, testing, and contact tracing. By showing how people move around locally, the tool could help to contain COVID-19 and aid economic recovery efforts.

“Integrating data from virus infections, decision-makers will be able to analyze different scenarios and optimize the strategy to contain the spread while avoiding too severe measures,” Piccoli said.

Two Rutgers‒Camden graduate students are working on the project, and as it progresses, undergraduates will begin processing data and designing the computer codes to simulate the various scenarios they will study. Piccoli’s team also is working closely with the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden to apply the model in South Jersey.

In a collaboration with the Rand Institute last year, Piccoli worked with a Rutgers–Camden research team that created models to provide data about a potential hospital bed shortage in South Jersey for the expected increases in people contracting COVID-19. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy cited a research brief the team issued in mid-March in a letter to the White House about the need for quick interventions.