At the Population Council, we believe that well-designed research is the foundation to solving health and development challenges. We are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by taking the tools and strategies we have used to address other global health areas and are rapidly deploying them to address this crisis.

Earlier this month, the Population Council engaged its Research in Humanitarian Settings Task Force to lead the Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by Dr. Ashish Bajracharya and Jessica DeMulder, and advised by Dr. Thoai Ngo, the Task Force consists of Council researchers and scientists working around the world who span health, education, and economic sectors with expertise in biomedical research and social and behavioral science research.

The Task Force is coordinating the efforts of the Council’s epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, public health specialists and researchers, evaluation experts, and data analysts in our offices around the world, in their response to COVID-19. They are helping them produce relevant and timely evidence to support various national health ministries, government agencies, and international and national non-governmental organizations at the local, national, and global level.

Our researchers are also undertaking rigorous biomedical and policy-relevant social and behavioral research to assess the immediate- and long-term impact of COVID-19. Currently, we are:

  • Exploring the potential of a protein that the Population Council has developed for HIV prevention to protect people from coronavirus infection.  The Council seeks to launch a clinical trial of this product in early 2021.
  • Gathering social and behavioral data remotely, utilizing innovative mobile technologies and conducting rapid analysis leveraging existing studies of populations, in Guatemala, India, Kenya, and Zambia.
  • Conducting secondary data analysis of existing data to draw lessons from the HIV and Ebola epidemics and humanitarian crises to identify best practices for prevention, control and mitigation strategies.
  • Assessing social and behavioral campaigns and interventions related to public health messages and social distancing to help understand the level of awareness of COVID-19 symptoms and perceptions of risks and fear among vulnerable populations.
  • Highlighting the needs of vulnerable populations and identifying evidence on what works to guide a response effort that is inclusive and equitable, including for women and girls, migrants and refugees, people with disabilities and poor health conditions, indigenous populations including Native Americans in the USA, and sexual and gender minority groups.

In just the last two weeks, the Population Council’s researchers have mobilized to conduct rapid phone-based surveys using existing cohort studies to assess knowledge, attitudes and practices among more than 2,000 individuals living in five informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya and more than 1,000 young people in the Indian States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  Within just a few days of starting our work in Kenya, we learned that overall awareness of COVID-19 is high, but knowledge of perceived risk, awareness of and ability to carry out preventive behaviors, and misconceptions are mixed, suggesting that more easily-understood interventions and more relevant policies for those living in informal settlements in urban areas, and across Kenya, may be needed. The Kenyan Ministry of Health (MOH) is using this evidence to inform its behavior change campaigns, COVID-19 tracking, and other interventions throughout the pandemic.  Additionally, in two populous states in India, our research is shedding insight on what may be the critical needs of households across the country. Preliminary research shows that already more than 60 percent of households in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have experienced lost jobs or livelihoods due to the nationwide lockdown.

A second round of evidence from Kenya and India will be available in the coming days.

We have also created a Population Council Dataverse page as part of our ongoing commitment to facilitate open science where we invite partners to adapt and use our methodologies, tools, data and findings in their response effort.

As we know, the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the vulnerabilities of the world’s public health preparedness and laying bare inequalities that exist in our society.  We hope the Population Council’s tools and evidence to support the COVID-19 response will inform decision making about public health and socio-economic policies that will lead to more humane and equitable futures for all and minimize the devastating effect of the pandemic on poor and marginalized populations.