Yvonne Hao with two of the many bottles of hand sanitizer she and Abrar Abidi manufactured to help the needy fend off coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of Berkeley News)

A pair of UC Berkeley students has taken to producing more than 100 gallons of free hand sanitizer each week to give to homeless shelters, jails, medical centers and other Bay Area places that have run out during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Berkeley graduate student Abrar Abidi and his colleague, research assistant Yvonne Hao, began making hand sanitizer after Abidi saw that multiple staff members at the San Francisco County jails had tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of March.

“We knew that once the sheriffs had caught the infection, any day it could spread to the inmates,” Abidi said. “And that would be the beginning of an absolute, nightmarish catastrophe.”

The pair and a group of volunteers began working out of a student teaching lab in UC Berkeley’s Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences to make hand sanitizer both for themselves and for people in need around the Bay Area.

Since March 17, when the state’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, Abidi and Hao have produced more than 400 gallons of hand sanitizer. Other labs on UC Berkeley’s campus have also begun making hand sanitizer to maximize production capacity and provide support if one or both of Abidi and Hao get sick.

“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,” Abidi said. “That is quite a sobering reality.”

Many other graduate students have paused their lab activities during the pandemic as most lab work is considered non-essential. Molecular and cell biology professor Robert Tjian, a faculty lab leader, has given Abidi and Hao his full support in their pivot to coronavirus lab work.

“I couldn’t imagine a better use of their time,” Tjian said. “They’re probably truly helping people at a very fundamental level.”

Abidi, Hao and the volunteers helping them deliver the sanitizer have partnered with the Berkeley Outreach Coalition and San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston to establish a robust infrastructure for distribution.

The distribution team in San Francisco has also set up a crowdfunding campaign to buy personal-sized plastic bottles and distribute them. Since launching March 26, the GoFundMe campaign at gofundme.com/f/hand-sanitizer-for-our-most-vulnerable has raised more than $12,500.

With a steady stream of chemical supplies like ethanol to make hand sanitizer, Abidi and Hao now have the capacity to produce some 120 gallons each week.

“One day, we just came to the sudden realization that we can make enough hand sanitizer for all the homeless people in the Bay,” Hao said. “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.”