Chemistry responds to COVID-19

COVID-19 structure. Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

Life is different right now. The Emory campus is closed to non-essential employees. Classes have moved online. Research and teaching labs in chemistry have suspended operations. Students, staff, and faculty are learning to work from home.

Still, some things stay the same.

The Emory chemistry community is still responding with creativity and compassion to challenge, distinguishing themselves as researchers, science communicators, and educators as they respond to the threat of COVID-19.

Fighting misinformation and supporting the faculty community

As the search for possible COVID-19 treatments escalates, so does the spread of misinformation about what works. Jen Heemstra took to Twitter to share a thread about the chemical mechanisms underlying Remdesivir.

Heemstra, a regular columnist for C&EN, also participated in the outlet's "#COVIDisruption: A Twitter Chat Series." On March 25th, she led a Twitter discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on faculty.


The PhD defense is the culmination and celebration of years of hard work. Many of our spring graduates defended their work under the shadow of uncertainty--was campus closing? Was gathering together safe? As understanding of COVID-19's spread in the United States grew, Emory's swift move to work-from-home helped to protect our community. At the same time, it caused students to have to work quickly to move long-anticipated milestones online.

In the Jui Group, three of the lab's founding graduate members defended their dissertations this month. Autumn Flynn was the last to defend in person on March 12th. On Friday, March 13th, David Vogt received the news that his defense would be virtual just hours before the event. He was able to Zoom the event from the chemistry seminar room on campus. Lastly, Ally Boyington, scheduled to defend on March 20th, was required to defend from home.

Disappointed, but undeterred, Ally mounted a fantastic defense from her own living room in front of scientists from across the country. In her free time, Ally is now making masks for healthcare workers.

All three Jui Group students are among the Emory chemists who will graduate this Spring with their hard-earned PhD.

The Simple Science of Soap

The Wuest Lab studies ways to combat antibiotic resistance. This month, Bill Wuest lent his expertise on disinfectants to a segment on The Weather Channel aimed at helping the public to understand the importance of adequate hand washing.

“There are so many unknowns about this pandemic that are driving fear and leading to irrational actions, like panic buying of toilet paper,” Wuest says. “It’s important to focus on what we do know — washing your hands properly and often with soap and water can help reduce your chances of getting infected with many pathogens and for spreading them to others.”

More recently, Wuest's advice has also been quoted by CNN.

Redirecting research supplies

Safety glasses and gloves form the core of chemistry Personal Protective Equipment, or "PPE." The chemistry stockroom has closed to the public as of Monday, March 23rd. However, efforts are ongoing to share remaining stock of critical PPE supplies with Emory University Hospital to help protect health workers, beginning with a donation of the stockroom's remaining store of safety goggles.

Meanwhile, the hospital is also accepting donations from the broader Atlanta community.

Applying chemistry methods to hand sanitizer production

Graduate alum and current Emory assistant scientist Samantha Iamurri’s everyday research focuses on exploring an enzyme superfamily in search of novel enzymes which could potentially be used to synthesize compounds used in the food, fragrance, and pharmaceutical industries. Last week, Iamurri translated this chemistry expertise into a partnership with local brewery Old Fourth Distillery as they switched their production efforts to making hand sanitizer in order to combat ongoing shortages for emergency workers.

“One of the ways that we test if a new enzyme is active is by looking at the enzyme’s ability to convert substrate to product and this is monitored by gas chromatography (GC). My experience with GC made it easy for me to lend a hand to O4W Distillery when Scott Thomaston (Emory EHSO) reached out asking if a lab in chemistry could help them determine the ethanol content of the hand sanitizer [they were] making.”

 For hand sanitizers to be effective they need to contain at least 60% alcohol—a property which can be confirmed by gas chromatography.

“Most of us are lucky to be able to hunker down and work from home but the first responders which includes hospital staff, fire and police departments don’t have that luxury and if I can help keep them safe while they keep the community safe I am happy to donate my time and expertise. While the collaboration started as a result of undesirable circumstances working with everyone involved has been great. I would be happy to continue the collaboration or help out anyway I can in the future.”

The hand sanitizer produced by Old Fourth Distillery will be provided free of charge to first responders.

Inspiration for learning chemistry at home

Douglas Mulford is always a central figure at the annual Atlanta Science Festival, leading the demo show at Centennial Olympic Park attended by thousands of Atlantans.

With the news that this year’s festival would be cancelled, Mulford appeared on local CBS-affiliate CBS46 to share fun at-home science experiments. His efforts will keep science learning happening at home until our Atlanta community can once again gather for the excitement of the festival.

Promoting professional development during social distancing

Emory is the site of the NSF Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, led by Emory chemist Dr. Huw Davies. However, the center has consisted of academic and industry collaborators from across the country and internationally since its inception. As part of connecting with this widespread community, the CCHF has been a leader in creating virtual content.

Since the closure of campus, the Center has hosted their 17th virtual symposium and a professional development seminar led by Dr. Clayton Owens, a Senior Research Scientist at Koch Ag & Energy Solutions. The seamless move to online content was possible thanks to the CCHF's history of hybrid events. They have also provided support for students moving defenses and other milestones online.

Exploring potential treatments for COVID-19

Dennis Liotta is the founder of DRIVE, a nonprofit that focuses on bridging the gap between scientific discoveries and the communities that might benefit, with a focus on translating academic research into drugs to treat alarming viral diseases. DRIVE is bringing its drug development expertise in infectious diseases such as SARS and MERS coronaviruses to bear on the global community’s attempts to contain and treat the latest coronavirus. Among other efforts, DRIVE has started a Go Fund Me to support further investigations of an anti-viral with promising applications to fight COVID-19.

The Liotta Research Group and the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD) are also preparing a COVID-19 proposal entitled "Pilot Study to Prepare EIDD-2801 Using Continuous Flow Chemistry" in response to a  BAA from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) through the Office of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). 

The Liotta Group is uniquely qualified to undertake this work due to their focus on the impact of diseases like coronavirus prior to the worldwide spread of COVID-19. EIDD-2801, set to start clinical trials in April, is one of the few antiviral agents that is NOT a “one bug, one drug" compound, meaning that it is active against multiple single stranded RNA viruses including, inter alia, influenza, Ebola and various equine encephalitis viruses. As a consequence, it would be an excellent compound to not only use to address the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also to prepare and store to help quell future pandemics. 

If successful, the requested federal funds could quickly pay for themselves while simultaneously demonstrating a positive governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic when it is needed the most.

Whether troubleshooting Zoom calls or sharing jokes and pet photos online, every member of the chemistry community is contributing to the fight against COVID-19 by responding to the call for social distancing.

By committing to #EmoryTogether even while we are physically apart, Emory chemists are continuing their work in new and creative ways with the ultimate aim of once again being able to gather in person to connect and innovate.

Do you have a story to share about responding to COVID-19? Contact Kira Walsh.