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NC Policy Collaboratory receives $29 million from state for COVID-19 research

UNC Chapel Hill Microbiome Core Facility. Research and support for the study of complex microbial communities.
DTH Photo Illustration at one of the UNC Laboratories. For COVID-19 research specifically, laboratories across many North Carolina campuses will be able to work towards better public health.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a $1.5 billion coronavirus relief package this week that will allocate $29 million to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC for research into COVID-19 treatment and testing.

UNC is among five North Carolina universities identified in this bill to receive funding for coronavirus research. The relief package also gave research funding to Duke University, Wake Forest University, East Carolina University and Campbell University. A combined total of $85 million will be allocated to the five schools.

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Caswell, Orange, is among the members of the General Assembly who helped approve this relief package.

“The goal is to have our academic and medical research centers determine the best public health responses and to develop more testing and treatment for this virus,” Meyer said. “We need the brilliant research of the state to help navigate until we get a vaccine.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said this funding will allow the university to continue its coronavirus research, noting the recent recognition UNC has received for its efforts. Remdesivir, a COVID-19 treatment developed in partnership with UNC researchers, has showed promising results in an international clinical trial.

“We were recently named the top university in the nation for coronavirus research, and will continue this fight with the same focus and resolve that led our scientists to help develop the first effective treatment for COVID-19,” Guskiewicz said via an email statement from UNC Media Relations. “This appropriation will enable UNC-CH and our fellow UNC System institutions to deploy their researchers and resources to find more solutions for North Carolinians.”

The N.C. Policy Collaboratory, which the General Assembly established in 2016, disseminates and funds resources for research related to the environment and natural resource management across the state.

Jeff Warren, executive director for the Collaboratory, described the importance of the initiative’s efforts in responding to the current pandemic.

“Our greatest issue is lab throughput — we are working at capacity, and we need more staff and equipment to take these novel medicinal approaches and see if they work,” Warren said. “This is such a time-sensitive issue, and a lot of times the purchasing approach can take many months.”

He said UNC’s recent funding allocation will go toward four “buckets” of COVID-related research: treatment, vaccines, community testing initiatives and other research activities. The Collaboratory aims to assemble an ad hoc advisory group of administrators from the University’s medical, business and public health departments to identify potential opportunities in coronavirus research.

The Collaboratory also coordinated an initiative to collect personal protective equipment from the University’s applied physical sciences, chemistry and public health departments and redistribute them to local hospitals. This effort was carried out at UNC as well as N.C. State University, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Wilmington and at the Institute for Marine Sciences in Morehead City. The Collaboratory calculated more than $17,000 worth of reimbursements for these labs for their PPE donations.

Currently, the Collaboratory is supporting two pilot projects related to COVID-19 research. The first project is led by Rachel Noble, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment Morehead City Field Site. The study aims to track the presence and persistence of viruses like COVID-19 in complex environment and infrastructure systems. 

Warren said the project could help to examine the trends of coronavirus in an aggregate population. 

“This could be a nice way to do mass monitoring without being invasive about it,” Warren said.

The second pilot study, led by Randa Radwan, director of UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center, uses mobility data to collect traffic flow data from January through June of this year in Wake County and 14 surrounding counties. 

Warren said her hope is to expand the project to study mobility data statewide by zip code through December.

“We could have a much more robust epidemiological model for the state and have some tracking and early warning modeling of potential lag in cases,” Warren said.

Warren said he hopes to incorporate policy-making lessons related to the COVID-19 pandemic by working with UNC public policy professor Maryann Feldman to build the syllabus for next fall’s section of Science and Public Policy: The Social, Economic and Political Context of Science and Innovation.

Warren said the Collaboratory aims to ensure that data-driven research is the basis for state legislation during this pandemic, and noted the importance of the efforts taken by researchers during this crisis.

“It really underscores what the chancellor has said about public service — when we can look at COVID research and have better public health and business outcomes, it really speaks to researchers’ hearts,” Warren said. “The more science is at the table for discussion for policy-making, that’s a victory.”

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