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Column: When it comes to COVID-19 research, UNC is leading the charge

DTH Photo Illustration depicting a student with a mask on using a microscope.

When COVID-19 was discovered, science had a lot of catching up to do. 

From identifying the virus, deciphering its genomic sequence and figuring out its origins, scientists have had their hands full, as numerous biomedical laboratories quickly pivoted to contribute to pandemic research.

In 2020, over 100,000 articles were published on topics relating to COVID-19 (almost 4 percent of all publications that year). Initially, these articles discussed the spread of the disease, patient outcomes and diagnostic testing. However, research eventually expanded to include topics such as how the virus can affect individuals with certain health conditions, or its impact on mental health. 

Scientists and investigators worked collaboratively on an international scale to learn as much about the virus as possible. UNC, home to one of the nation’s leading public health programs, has played an integral role in the research that is being used by governmental organizations to issue guidelines and make science-based decisions throughout the pandemic.

Here are just a few of the on-campus labs that have been leading the charge, and what to keep an eye out for in their current research:

Spreading COVID-19 after vaccination

One of the major questions as vaccination opens up for all adults in North Carolina is whether or not vaccinated individuals can still spread the virus. This is exactly what Audrey Pettifor, professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, hopes to research as co-principal investigator of the Prevent COVID U study. 

The study, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and discussed in White House COVID-19 response press briefings, is a clinical study that tests whether a person can become infected and transmit COVID-19 post-vaccination. While it is currently enrolling college students as study subjects, results from the trial will likely be utilized in governmental decision-making on mask policies and social distancing later this year.

Studying long-term effects of COVID-19

One of the more devastating effects of the virus is the resulting symptoms an individual can experience for weeks, or even months, after being infected. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of infected patients (up to 8.4 million people in the U.S. alone) experience continued health issues, such as an extended loss of taste or smell, respiratory problems or fatigue. 

Dr. John M. Baratta, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, hoped to study the phenomenon when he helped start the UNC COVID Recovery Clinic. It’s a location where patients can get help for ongoing symptoms while doctors of nearly every specialty utilize telemedicine and in-person appointments to assess individuals and simultaneously gather data on the virus. 

The collaborative effort has developed a significantly large database for understanding the long-term effects of COVID-19, and will be used in further research to improve health outcomes for these patients.

Antiviral drugs and understanding vaccine responses

Likely the largest name in COVID-19 research, Dr. Ralph Baric has been studying coronaviruses for nearly four decades. His lab was one of the first to receive samples of COVID-19 when it was discovered, and his research primarily focuses on developing virus models, studying virus mechanisms and identifying potential antivirals and vaccine formulas. 

Baric's current research involves many other academic professionals across UNC. Some of his projects include using immunology to develop assays for specific detection of antibodies in infected individuals, or developing a new antiviral drug (EIDD-2801) that could potentially be used to prevent the virus altogether. 

Although clinical trials still have yet to be completed, the idea of having multiple preventative options to combat COVID-19 could make getting “vaccinated” more accessible globally, ending the pandemic sooner than we think.


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