When Covid-19 struck in 2020, the MIT community did what it does best—rolled up its collective sleeves and got to work. With world-renowned faculty and research facilities and an unmatched problem-solving mindset, MIT was strongly positioned to play a significant role in addressing the global health crisis. In fact, the mNRA vaccines that would ultimately change the course of the pandemic had roots in research conducted at MIT in the 1970s.
A variety of MIT researchers and MIT-affiliated companies quickly began seeking discoveries that would aid detection of Covid-19 cases, prevent spread of the virus, and lead to treatments. To centralize information about Institute initiatives and resources, the Covid-19 Rapid Innovation Dashboard was launched on March 19, 2020.
While MIT community members, including students, worked to meet the mounting challenge of Covid-19, thousands of donors raised more than $11 million in support of the Institute’s pandemic response, from individual research efforts to emergency funds to student support initiatives. Families of current students were particularly tuned into the Institute’s efforts; some offered financial support to initiatives such as an effort to develop emergency ventilators, while others coordinated donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) and raised money for MIT’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund.
“MIT’s influence is felt all over the world, and we are grateful for the generous support of our international community as we work to speed the pace of solutions.”
—Elazer Edelman, MD, ’78, SM ’79, PhD ’84
Director, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science; Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science; and Senior Attending Physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
The Institute’s first priority when the pandemic began was ensuring that students were safe and had the financial means to travel home after the campus scaled back activities in March 2020. Since MIT’s student population hails from 50 states and more than 100 countries, this was a significant undertaking. Financial assistance was provided to help students exit campus quickly, and those who could not leave the area were aided in finding alternative housing.
As the economic impacts of Covid-19 became clearer, financial aid packages were adjusted so that no students whose families had lost income due to the pandemic would have their MIT education interrupted. Thanks to generous support from the MIT community around the world, the Institute was able to expand its aid to families that had increased financial need during the crisis.
“Given the challenging times the world has faced, we are pleased to be able to continue our longstanding commitment to making an MIT education affordable.”
—Stuart Schmill ’86
Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services
Remote Teaching and Learning
To ensure a successful transition to remote learning, MIT Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, launched the Covid-19 Academic Continuity Working Group. Experts from departments across the Institute rapidly built a teaching resource site with instructions and best practices for remote education. The Institute also established a technology loaner program, providing iPads, laptops, and hotspots to students at home.
Virtual learning tools were quickly upgraded, with the Zoom platform integrated into academic programs. Some of these efforts will pay dividends for years to come; communicating with students via Slack, for example, enabled instructors to create an accessible history of student projects. Embracing a can-do attitude, the community worked together during the pandemic to innovate, adapt, and create an MIT-worthy educational experience during a challenging time.
Former Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88, the Ford Professor of Engineering, led the Covid Decision Team, a group of senior officers overseeing Covid-19-related policy and planning decisions. With all students learning remotely for some portion of the 2020–2021 academic year, Barnhart’s office found that an increasing number needed support with difficult home situations and food insecurity. Gifts to the Student Life, Wellness, and Support Fund and to the MindHandHeart Community Innovation Fund supported dozens of projects related to mental health, well-being, and connectedness.
Covid-19-related projects across the Institute centered on tasks ranging from manufacturing PPE to developing rapid testing and vaccines to investigating the pandemic’s effects on supply chains, health care, the economy, and more.
Novel mRNA vaccines for Covid-19 appeared with what seemed like astonishing speed, but the groundwork for these breakthroughs was laid at MIT in the 1970s through DNA and RNA research. One key researcher was Robert S. Langer ScD ’74, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, who went on to cofound Moderna Therapeutics in 2010. In December 2020, the FDA granted authorization for emergency use of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, and more than 30 million doses had been administered in the United States as of February 2021, less than one year into the pandemic.
As Covid-19 cases surged in March of 2020 and PPE was in short supply, MIT engineers designed a single-piece, disposable face shield in collaboration with area hospitals and industry. Seeing a shortage of potentially life-saving ventilators in hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases, a group including engineers and doctors also assembled the MIT Emergency Ventilator Team. They worked to design ventilators that could be quickly produced at a lower cost than standard hospital equipment, and production began just four weeks after the group was formed.
Recognizing that traditional methods of drug development were too slow to respond to the growing pandemic, researchers at the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, housed within the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, launched AI Cures to develop machine-learning methods for finding promising antiviral molecules. The initiative has brought researchers in computational and life sciences together to enable large-scale search and identification of therapeutics for Covid-19 and other emerging pathogens.
Scientists at Janssen Research & Development, developers of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, worked with MIT researchers to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to help guide the company’s research efforts.
MIT Sloan School of Management faculty are among the leaders of the Covid-19 Policy Alliance, established in 2020 to generate data intelligence and operational recommendations for state and federal governments. Many faculty members quickly pivoted their research to assist with Covid-related challenges, and the alliance’s work soon included projects such as the use of analytics to help elder-care facilities solve staffing and PPE supply-chain issues during the pandemic.
MIT Solve, which issues challenges each year designed to identify tech-based social entrepreneurs and help them scale up their ideas, lost no time in launching a pandemic-related Global Challenge: How can communities around the world prepare for, detect, and respond to emerging pandemics and health security threats? Winning proposals included an artificial intelligence platform that would streamline supply chains in future health crises, a predictive analytics decision support system for Covid-19 management, and a vaccine delivery plan that uses contactless biometrics.
Researchers in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning suspected that Covid-19 would hit hardest in socially vulnerable communities, where housing is crowded and remote work is rarely an option. They investigated Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Everett and found that increasing home values in previously affordable neighborhoods led to a rise in Covid-19 infection rates, making a compelling case for public policy that protects affordable housing.
The MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences created a portal that compiled Covid-19-related research and commentaries on health care, the economy, education, elections, daily life, and democracy. Historians provided context for the global crisis, offering lessons from past pandemics, while economists explored the financial impacts of Covid-19 and weighed in on the best path to economic recovery, including recommendations for speeding scientific discovery through new funding mechanisms. In the classroom, anthropology students examined the viral ecologies that connect humans and animals.
Researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research studied the impact of mandatory shutdowns on mental health by surveying MIT students, postdocs, and staff. One graduate student, an Iraq War veteran, shifted his research on post-traumatic stress disorder to an exploration of the effects of social isolation.
→ Covid-19 news from around the Institute
This article was originally published in July 2021.