From developing a new COVID-19 diagnostic test, to seeking ways to reduce pandemic-induced anxiety, to studying the effects of the disease on rural communities and beyond, University of Virginia researchers are seeking to ease the new health crisis using rapid response grants provided by UVA’s Global Infectious Diseases Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Research.
“To fight this pandemic, it’s important for us to use all our resources, and develop innovative and creative solutions,” said Melur “Ram” Ramasubramanian, vice president for research. “We felt that seed funding, provided as quickly as possible, was important to help mobilize UVA researchers to explore solutions for the cure and prevention of COVID-19.”
Institute director Alison Criss, a professor of microbiology, immunology and cancer biology, added, “Addressing outbreaks of pandemic potential is one of the Global Infectious Diseases Institute’s pillars, and we’ve brought our experience and knowledge to the fight against COVID-19, as we have for other global infectious diseases. All of us in our research community can bring our diverse perspectives to tackle this growing challenge.”
Seventy-two applicants from across the University submitted proposals in March detailing how they would detect, treat, reduce the spread of, and understand and project the effects of COVID-19 on individuals and society. In April, the Global Infectious Diseases Institute funded six projects, totaling nearly $485,000 in funds.
“These projects highlight the institute’s mission to facilitate new research in all disciplines focused on solving problems in global infectious diseases,” said the institute’s executive associate director, Linda Columbus, a professor of chemistry. “We build research teams and networks from these different disciplines for larger initiatives and the sharing of knowledge to strengthen the research mission at UVA.”
The Global Infectious Diseases Institute plans to showcase these and other COVID-19 research projects during a public event. Information about the six funded projects follows.
For more information on the projects and the rapid response fund, contact Michael R. Davis Jr., program manager at the Global Infectious Disease Institute.
PCR-Dipstick as a Point-of-Care Diagnostic Test for COVID-19
Current nucleic acid-based tests for active COVID-19 infection require expensive equipment suited to large, centralized diagnostic laboratories. Using the rapid-response funding, biology professor Martin Wu and his team will develop a simple, cheap and quick test based on a PCR “dipstick” technology. If successful, this new test can be deployed widely in communities for rapid, decentralized point-of-care diagnosis and epidemiological surveillance.
Online Intervention to Reduce COVID-19 Anxiety and Predict Mental Health Trajectories
A study designed by psychology professor Bethany Teachman and systems and environmental engineering professor Laura Barnes will evaluate whether COVID-19-related anxiety can be reduced using an online intervention program, and what factors predict resilience or worsening mental health over time. They will offer a new version of their online anxiety-reduction tool, MindTrails, to 500 people who are experiencing high anxiety, and then track their progress, both over the course of a five-week intervention and then for six months beyond.
“Without this award, it would not be possible for us to recruit and track these individuals, so the grant is central to us learning what factors predict better or worse long-term mental health following COVID-19,” Teachman said.
Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic on Individuals with Chronic Health Conditions
Rupa Valdez, a systems engineering and public health sciences professor, and her research team will examine the social, economic and health-related impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals living with a wide range of chronic health conditions. They also will explore individual relationship, community and societal changes that may mitigate negative impacts and sustain positive ones.
The Host Immune Response to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-CoV-2 (aka COVID-19)
Dr. Catherine Bonham, Dr. Alexandra Kadl and Dr. Lindsay Somerville, pulmonary and critical care physicians, and their team will examine the immune response to COVID-19 in patients admitted to the UVA special pathogens intensive care unit. They will focus on how patients’ immune response to COVID-19 differs from influenza, so they may better understand the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.
“We are very excited to have the grant to help us fund these studies to examine currently available therapies and discover new treatments for our most critically ill patients,” Bonham said.
COVID-19 Impacts on Rural Populations
Dr. Preston Reynolds, a geriatrics and palliative care physician; Peggy Scott, a cancer care nurse; and architecture professor Frank Dukes will study the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities using survey and qualitative interviews. Their hypothesis is that the geographical distribution of rural populations slows disease transmission, and that the geographic separation of individuals in rural populations means that these populations do not need to alter their behavior as much as urban populations in order to achieve social distancing. However, because infrastructures in rural areas are fragile (such as scarce internet access and uneven access to food and clean water), rural populations may paradoxically be exposed to greater risks and impacts.
Quantifying the Impact of Data Sharing on Outbreak Dynamics
Electrical and computer engineering and data science professor Jundong Li and data science professor Daniel Mietchen will explore the range of data-related decisions made by society during COVID-19 and analyze the flow of information, data and metadata. Data sharing is considered a key component of addressing present, future and even past public health emergencies, from local to global levels.
The team will quantify the effects of data flow modifications to identify parameters under which specific modes of sharing or withholding information have the largest effects, and will assess corresponding current and past data availability to estimate those effects on outbreak mitigation and preparedness efforts.