BERKELEY (CBS SF) -- Two graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley have transformed a teaching lab at the university into a hand sanitizer factory and have been providing it for free to needy populations across the Bay Area during the coronavirus pandemic shelter-in-place.
Since March 17, the first day of the statewide shelter-in-place mandate, graduate students Abrar Abidi and Yvonne Hao have worked around the clock to mix and distribute 400 gallons of hand sanitizer, using standard ingredients available in many biology labs: ethanol, glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol.
Abidi, who worked for two years in an infectious disease lab studying tuberculosis before coming to UC Berkeley, immediately knew that COVID-19 could spread widely and was frustrated that hand sanitizer had disappeared from store shelves. Hao graduated with a B.A. in molecular and cell biology last year and was working as a research assistant at the lab where she and Abidi now make the hand sanitizer.
The project started when Abidi heard that staff members at San Francisco County Jail had tested positive for COVID-19. Abidi, Hao and others worked non-stop to manufacture, package and deliver more than 900 bottles of hand sanitizer to the jail – enough for each inmate at all five county lockups.
"We knew that once the sheriffs had caught the infection, any day it could spread to the inmates. And that would be the beginning of an absolute, nightmarish catastrophe," said Abidi. "We triaged our entire supply of sanitizer to fill 900 bottles, and the next morning, we went with a team of friends and activists to one of the county jails to donate them. From there, they were distributed to every single county jail inmate in SF."
Since then, Abidi and Hao along with some two dozen volunteers have distributed the free sanitizer — in small bottles as well as gallon jugs — to homeless shelters, senior centers, hospices, health centers, jails and other places in the Bay Area.
"We have been working with, among many others, the Department of Homelessness (and Supportive Housing) in San Francisco, which told us that there should be no cap on what we give them, that we could supply them with hundreds of gallons of sanitizer, and it still wouldn't be enough. That is quite a sobering reality," Abidi said.
"We want to distribute to populations where self-isolation, self-quarantine and social distancing are not an option," said Hao. "I really believe that social distancing is a privilege and luxury that not everyone has. Those vulnerable and underprivileged populations, as well as front-line health care workers who don't have the ability to isolate themselves due to the conditions of their jobs — those are the people we are trying to help."
Hao and Abidi say they now have a steady supply of materials to produce 120 gallons of sanitizer per week for the indefinite future. The several thousand-dollar cost for the chemicals has so far been covered by the lab's discretionary funds.
"Our friends on the distribution end tell us stories. The staff at so many overcrowded, under-resourced shelters apparently receive it like a godsend," Abidi said. "In the city, people have taken to calling it liquid gold."
"Good will is at an all-time high," Hao said. What made the project succeed, she added, is that "both of us are optimistic, idealistic and perhaps somewhat crazy people. One day, we just came to the sudden realization that we can make enough hand sanitizer for all the homeless people in the Bay. That statement initially sounded insane, but now that I've seen the scale at which we have been able to produce the sanitizer, I think it is actually feasible."
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