Center for Pandemic Research

Happening now at the Center:

The Center for Pandemic Research coordinates new work by Columbia social scientists on COVID-19 and other disease outbreak topics. This Center is structured as an ISERP "start-up center" program -- i.e. not something permanent, but a structure to facilitate fast, flexible, interdisciplinary initiatives.

The Center convenes studies and discussions about the social science aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It funds faculty research through seed grants in a separate process from ISERP’s standard calls for funding proposals, enabling quick support of pandemic-related research while preserving funds for non-Covid-19 projects. Other Center activity includes hosting events and seminars, and supporting undergraduate and graduate student research assistantships. The Center for Pandemic Research houses the Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group, supported by Schmidt Futures. This working group builds on the ISERP study led by Wilmot James, Epidemic/Pandemic Response in Africa.

The Center has an executive committee made up of the following faculty:

  • Wilmot James, Senior Research Scholar, ISERP, Interim Chair
  • Matthew Connelly, Professor of History
  • Douglas Almond, Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs
  • Jennifer Hirsch, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Director, Doctoral Program, Department of Sociomedical Sciences
  • Yao Lu, Associate Professor of Sociology
  • Suresh Naidu, Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs
  • Elizabeth Povinelli, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology & Gender Studies
  • Robert Shapiro, Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government and Professor of International and Public Affairs
  • Thomas DiPrete, Giddings Professor of Sociology, Ex-Officio

These projects are currently underway

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Anti-Chinese Sentiment on Social Media

Investigators: Douglas Almond and Shuang Zhang

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in January, incidents of anti-Chinese racism around the world have been widely reported.  This project seeks to analyze patterns of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media. We plan to focus on publicly-available Twitter posts for the US and identify factors which shape the anti-Chinese response to COVID-19:

How does the pattern of anti-Chinese tweets change before and after the first outbreak in Wuhan and the subsequent outbreak in the US?

How does the pattern of anti-Chinese tweets change before and after President Trump's statement about the “Chinese virus" on March 18th? 

Are regional differences in anti-Chinese tweets across US counties correlated with the economic impacts of the US-China trade war?  Or other factors?

We aim to develop a more systematic understanding of the anti-Chinese response and its heterogeneity using “big data”.  Shedding light on these potential drivers will inform public policies that might help reduce racial bias.

Pandemic Reporting

Investigators: Matthew Connelly, Sheila Coronel, Jennifer Hirsch, Wilmot James, and Derek Kravitz

Covid-19 has put in stark relief many of the problems of doing journalism and social science research at the intersection of science, medicine, and public policy. Columbia epidemiologists, virologists, public interest journalists, and computational social scientists are working together to develop a new model. Experts will help journalists identify the most significant new studies and target their FOIA requests. Journalists will share their research, such as FOIA'ed documents, and work with computational social scientists to turn these documents into data. With advanced search and discovery tools, this growing corpus would not only support more in-depth research on breaking stories, but also longer-form journalism. In time, as more of the historical record is finally released, it would become a community archive of the Covid-19 pandemic, so that social scientists could also begin to mine the data, and scholars and journalists could narrate this history.

Incentivizing Un(der)banked Households to Socially Distance Through Conditional Digital Loan Forgiveness

Investigators: Harrison Hong, Neng Wang, and Jack Willis

Social distancing, the standard policy response to COVID-19, helps reduce the health costs but magnifies the economic costs, at least in the short run. The resulting economic costs are disproportionately born by the poor, increasing inequality. This project pilots a novel fintech product which incentivizes social distancing among the poor, in partnership with a digital credit company ScoreOne, in India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. We work with ScoreOne to offer households partial forgiveness of these loans if they adhere to social distancing, as measured using their cell phones. Such conditional loan forgiveness has the double benefit of providing a social safety net - rapidly getting money into the hands of those who need it the most - while also improving adherence to social distancing. Social distancing, perhaps run intermittently around isolated flare-ups, appears likely for some time to come. This project seeks to demonstrate whether digital loan forgiveness, implemented either through fintech companies, or directly through governments, could be a useful tool both to improve adherence to social distancing and to provide social protection.

Model Minority No More? Changing Perceptions and the Social and Economic Impact of Rising Anti-Asian Racism Fueled by COVID-19

Investigators: Yao Lu and Neeraj Kaushal

Despite growing news reports on anti-Asian racism, particularly toward Chinese Americans, after the outbreak of COVID-19, our present understanding of the rising prejudice and discrimination against Asians is mostly based on anecdotes. We will systematically investigate the extent to which COVID-19 has exacerbated anti-Asian racism and if such intensified discrimination has permeated to the socioeconomic arena to affect the labor market outcomes and social experiences of Asian Americans. We will conduct two rounds of online experiments and audit studies to examine the overall impacts of COVID-triggered discrimination, as well as the extent to which these effects differ across areas characterized by different COVID-related public health and economic shocks, political environment, and ethnic diversity.

Understanding and Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy in Latin America

Investigators: John Marshall and Sarah Daly

Description to come.

Labor Lab

Investigators: Suresh Naidu, Adam Reich, and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

Prior to COVID-19, service-sector workers suffered from poor working conditions and little voice in the workplace or the political arena. The pandemic has made conditions worse for these workers in many ways, but has also recast many as "essential" in the eyes of the public.  Moreover, despite widespread unemployment, we see a surprising level of interest in workplace collective action among these workers.  Our project seeks to understand whether and how the shock of the pandemic might generate collective action to rebuild the economic and political power of the service-sector. Working directly with unions and worker associations, we use state-of-the-art research methods to study what workers want from labor organizations and the effects of new forms of collective action in the workplace, labor market, and politics.

Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group

The Vaccine Safety and Confidence-Building Working Group, based at Columbia University’s Center for Pandemic Research and supported by Schmidt Futures, will catalyze and support projects that generate, scale and analyze actively-collected vaccine safety surveillance and pharmaco-vigilance data in Africa. The aim is to monitor adverse events to help clinicians intervene if necessary to save lives and increase public trust and confidence in vaccines through the rigorous collection and dissemination of this data . Not only are these capabilities a crucial priority if COVID-19 is to be vanquished on the continent,  they will also be essential infrastructure for future pandemics and rapid vaccination campaigns. To be successful, such projects will require considerable amounts of public, institutional, and corporate funding. VacSafe WG will help surface and support projects with the potential to scale through seed funding that can be leveraged for additional support.

Members of the VacSafe Working Group compile a monthly briefing for the United States' Congressional Research Service. The briefing details vaccination progress in Africa with emphasis on vaccine safety/efficacy, acquisition, fill and manufacture capabilities, distribution progress, and intellectual property/technology transfer developments. Publicly accessible versions of the first two monthly briefings are available here.

Past events hosted and sponsored by the Center for Pandemic Research include:


Wilmot G. James

Senior Research Scholar
Adjunct Professor, School of Professional Studies; Chair, Center for Pandemic Research