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Human Biologists Confront COVID-19

Northwestern faculty and students examine critical issues in special journal issue

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Several members of Northwestern's anthropology department, former and current, are among a diverse group of scholars who contributed to a special issue of The American Journal of Human Biology. The issue, which is freely available online, includes 14 commentaries on topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

IPR biological anthropologist Thomas McDade and postdoctoral fellow Amelia Sancilio co-authored the cover article, “Beyond serosurveys: Human biology and the measurement of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.” Their article highlights the remote “no-contact” approach to antibody testing that McDade and colleagues have developed to understand the factors that promote, and prevent, the spread of coronavirus in the community. They point to how current understanding of SARS and COVID-19 is derived primarily from studying the most severe cases in clinical and hospital settings, but the additional research perspectives offered by human biology are critical to creating a deeper understanding of the virus and its devastating social and economic effects.

"A complementary, field-based approach is desperately needed, and human biologists are well-positioned to make important contributions to our understanding of which individuals, and communities, are most vulnerable and why," McDade and Sancilio wrote.

Northwestern anthropologist and  journal editor William Leonard also confirms this unique positioning of the field "to offer important insights on nature and differential impact of the pandemic" in his opening editorial. He expresses his hope that the 14 commentaries by such a diverse group of scholars will help "stimulate further research and collaboration to better understand and address the biosocial dimensions of this pandemic."

Additional commentaries by current and former Northwestern students include:

  • "Promoting mental health in community and research settings during COVID-19: Perspectives and experiences from Soweto, South Africa" by Andrew Kim, a current PhD student at Northwestern;
  • "Maternal and child health during the COVID-19 pandemic: Contributions in the field of human biology" by Zaneta Thayer (PhD 2013), assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College; and
  • "The COVID-19 liquid gold rush: Critical perspectives of human milk and SARS-CoV-2 infection" by Elizabeth Quinn (PhD 2011), who is currently an associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Read the full issue here.

Thomas McDade is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology and an IPR fellow. William Leonard is the Abraham Harris Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Global Health Studies Program, and editor of The American Journal of Human Biology.

Read the full issue here.

Photo credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS 

Published: October 7, 2020.