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‘We’ve got a role to play.’ How these NC universities are tackling COVID-19 research

Can food animals, like cows and pigs, harbor the coronavirus? Could nanoparticles protect surfaces from COVID-19 contamination? What social factors determine who is willing to wear a mask, and who is not?

These are among the questions North Carolina researchers are exploring this summer as they examine the impacts of the pandemic.

The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory has approved funding for a total of 85 COVID-19 research projects at universities across the state. The Collaboratory received $29 million in May as part of the state’s $1.5 billion coronavirus relief to support studies on the impacts of coronavirus.

The Collaboratory is funding at least one project on almost all UNC system campuses, said executive director Jeff Warren. N.C. State University, East Carolina University and UNC-Wilmington all received separate funding to study COVID-19.

“We realized we’ve got a role to play here and realized that there has to be a massive state-wide research effort,” Warren said.

The Collaboratory was created in 2016 by the North Carolina General Assembly to help facilitate coordinating research expertise across the UNC System. Up until now, their projects have mainly centered around natural resource management.

But when the pandemic began making its way into North Carolina, the Collaboratory put out a call for COVID-19-related research projects, receiving hundreds of proposals.

The majority of the funding remained at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the Collaboratory is housed, Warren said. The school is ranked as one of the top coronavirus research institutions in the country, he added, due in large part to distinguished researcher and professor of epidemiology and of microbiology and immunology Ralph Baric’s work on the drug remdesivir.

And while Baric and other researchers in the Gillings School of Public Health are leading some of the projects, others involve experts in social work, dentistry, psychology and finance.

“It’s amazing, when you kind of throw the spaghetti against the wall and say, ‘Hey what are your ideas?’ and you get back all these amazing ideas,” Warren said.

FUNDING GRANTED TO HBCUS

The second-largest allocation was announced in June, when the Collaboratory granted $6 million in funding to the state’s six historically minority-serving institutions. Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina Central University, UNC-Pembroke, N.C. A&T State University and Winston-Salem State University each received $1 million.

Warren said he and UNC Board of Governors member Darrell Allison spoke early on in the funding process and agreed that a significant portion should go to those schools.

“They’re some of the hardest hit communities, and a lot of times when these big funding opportunities come through, they’re not necessarily at the table,” he added.

The projects at those six schools focus largely on regional impacts of the pandemic — particularly in rural and underserved communities — and promising technological developments.

One project at N.C. A&T State University is examining how to build more affordable infrared fever detection systems for schools, which usually cost $10,000 to $20,000. The project proposes building a prototype at one-tenth that cost.

Scanning people entering buildings for elevated temperatures “is the first line of defense,” said Raymond Tesiero, principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the school. But current scanners are not built with places like schools or lower- income institutions in mind.

“The current scanning systems are priced way out of range for any school system,” Tesiero said. “We feel we can help the community out by developing a much simpler system.”

Several other projects at the universities are examining the impacts of the pandemic on minority populations or people of color. As part of several linked studies, researchers at Winston-Salem State University have proposed leveraging partnerships between Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help identify and address communities in greatest need of intervention.

Two linked studies at Elizabeth City State University intend to use drones in developing regional infrastructure to manage COVID-19 within racial/ethnic minority, socially vulnerable and rural communities.

PILOT STUDIES AT UNC-CHAPEL HILL

Several of the projects have just received their funding or are in the beginning stages, Warren said. But two pilot studies approved at UNC-Chapel Hill in May are already underway.

The first involves studying wastewater to learn more about how the pandemic is affecting entire communities. Rachel Noble, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill and lead researcher on the project, has studied viruses in wastewater in her lab previously. But when rumblings of COVID-19’s impact started back in February, she and her colleagues began talking about using the technology to track SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“The idea is that using wastewater allows you to measure the prevalence of the virus using the concentration value — the numbers of the virus in the wastewater,” Noble said. “And it tells you something more about the community or the entire system of people that is feeding into the wastewater.”

UNC’s second pilot study is tackling the intersection between health and mobility, and studying the effects of COVID-19 on transportation in the state. The study hopes to compare data from previous years with data collected during the state’s state of emergency, stay-at-home and reopening orders, to see how mobility patterns have changed.

Randa Radwan, director of UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center, said she’s excited about the project’s potential to analyze several different impacts of the pandemic.

“The longer term thinking here is, how does COVID-19 affect long-term travel behavior?,” she said.

Radwan added that a large part of the study will be coordinating across UNC departments to aggregate the data, launching a website and making their findings available to the public in a format that’s easy to understand.

“As researchers, we tend to provide our output in technical papers or peer-reviewed literature,” she said. “But in this case, we have more than one audience.”

The projects are slated to report their initial findings to the General Assembly by Sept. 1, and are scheduled to be completed by Dec. 30, according to the requirements of the CARES Act on how COVID-19 federal funds must be spent.

But of all the states conducting COVID-19 research this year, Warren thinks North Carolina may just be unique.

“To my knowledge, we’re the only state that has this legislatively created and endorsed mechanism to utilize every campus,” he said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

A full list of the projects can be found at collaboratory.unc.edu.

Original Article Source: News & Observer