How Universities Are Helping in the Fight Against COVID-19

How Universities Are Helping in the Fight Against COVID-19
portrait of Stephen Gaffney
By Stephen Gaffney

Published on December 2, 2020

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Universities all over the world are helping in the fight against COVID-19, and it's not just through their robust medical research programs. Other departments — like engineering, gerontology, statistics, public health, computer science, psychiatry, biology, agriculture, and nutritional science — are all conducting studies, developing experiments, and poring over data to try and make sense of the pandemic.

While not all of colleges' efforts have been groundbreaking, every push by university scientists, professors, and students brings us one step closer to finding a solution to the pandemic. Their findings also lay the groundwork for dealing with future public health crises.

Big-name public and private research universities, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and UC Berkeley, stand at the forefront of revolutionary discoveries and technological innovation. But with COVID-19, colleges of all sizes are lending a hand.

Big-name research universities stand at the forefront of revolutionary discoveries and technological innovation. But with COVID-19, colleges of all sizes are lending a hand.

The University of Montana's Center for Population Health Research helped support local and state responses to the pandemic by developing disease projection models, while researchers at Northern Arizona University are working on similar research projects.

It makes sense that universities are one of the go-to sources for coronavirus research, as these institutions house much of the country's brainpower. In addition, many top colleges receive millions of dollars in research funding each year. For example, in the 2019-20 fiscal year, UCLA welcomed $1.4 billion in research funding.

These schools are also well equipped to conduct research. Yale offers over 1,200 science and engineering labs across more than 45 degree-granting programs. At schools like Yale, research is an integral component of the course of study.

Where Does College Research Funding Come From?

Most of the funding for research programs at U.S. colleges and universities comes from federal grants. For instance, researchers at Northern Arizona University's Center for Health Equity Research received four grants totaling more than $1 million in 2020 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for COVID-19-related projects.

NIH, CDC, and other government agencies fund many universities’ research grants.

In addition to NIH, the FDA, CDC, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and other government agencies fund many of the grants that allow universities to do their important work. You can learn more about these grants by visiting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

In total, the federal government supports around 60% of the research performed at universities. Various corporations, foundations, and private entities assist in research funding as well. In 2017, the National Science Foundation reported that higher education institutions spent more than $75 billion on research and development projects.

Recent COVID-19 Research Projects at U.S. Universities

U.S. colleges have spearheaded hundreds of research projects dedicated to the fight against COVID-19. Some have already been completed, while others are currently underway or in the planning stages. Below are some examples of universities' recent research projects.

Washington University in St. Louis

The McKelvey School of Engineering participated in a research study, which discovered that pollution may be partially to blame for the proliferation and rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, i.e., the virus that causes COVID-19.

University of Southern California

Researchers from the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and Keck School of Medicine published an analysis suggesting that exposure to COVID-19 could pose a risk to the health and aging of individuals yet to be born.

Rice University, University of Texas

Researchers from the Brown School of Engineering and MD Anderson Cancer Center found that a portion of the peptide from a SARS-CoV virus significantly impacts its ability to bind with a receptor that plays a critical role in how the immune system attacks diseased cells. These findings could lead to advancements in immunotherapy.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Research conducted at these schools revealed that the new D614G strain of SARS-CoV-2 replicates faster and is more transmissible than the original strain of the virus, though it may be more sensitive to neutralization by antibody drugs.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Chemists discovered the structure of a key coronavirus protein, which could be a future target for new drugs in the fight against the coronavirus.

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Researchers in the Department of Psychiatry and Division of Infectious Diseases concluded that a common antidepressant drug may help prevent some of the most serious complications associated with COVID-19.

University of Arizona Health Sciences

This institution is developing a lung ultrasound education program for rural emergency medicine providers to better diagnose COVID-19. The state of Arizona has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Through a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, researchers found that a certain drug used to prevent and treat malaria does not prevent COVID-19 for individuals at high risk of exposure, including healthcare workers.

University of North Carolina School of Medicine

Researchers are currently working on a study that involves tracking the SARS-CoV-2 virus using genome sequencing. Their mission is to help accurately diagnose the virus, identify mutations, and track virus history.

UC Riverside, University of Southern California

Scientists showed that variations in the susceptibilities individuals have to SARS-CoV-2, such as breathing problems and fever, may be due to underlying molecular causes. The study could help lead to effective therapeutic strategies for combating COVID-19.

Duke University

Researchers created a living lung model that mimics the tiny air sacs of the lungs in which coronavirus infection manifests and serious lung damage can occur. The model lets us see how the coronavirus and lung cells battle at the molecular level.

UC Irvine

After testing a representative sample of residents in Orange County, California, researchers found that 11.5% — far higher than the previous estimate of under 2% — possess COVID-19 antibodies. These findings suggest that a much larger proportion of the country's sixth-largest county might have already been exposed to COVID-19.

College Students Engage in COVID-19 Research Projects

Both graduate and undergraduate students often get opportunities to work with faculty members and scientists on research projects. For students, research doesn't just further their education — it helps define their career paths and can make landing a job easier.

What's more, getting involved in research that positively impacts society and makes the world a better place can feel highly rewarding.

Many colleges strongly encourage their students to gain research experience. For example, students at the Tufts University School of Medicine can join professors in an array of short- and long-term research projects conducted in laboratories and clinics, at affiliated hospitals, or at other institutions.

Many colleges strongly encourage their students to gain research experience, which can help define their career paths and make landing a job easier.

UC Berkeley provides students with research opportunities in multiple areas of study, including politics, law, biology, engineering, and the humanities. The Berkeley Haas Scholars Program allows 20 seniors from any department on campus to engage in sustained research, field study, or a creative project.

At UC Davis, close to 40% of undergraduates participate in hands-on research. Here, you might complete a project similar to what physics major Mario D'Andrea did: He collaborated with two other students to research waste reduction and carbon sequestration through composting.

And at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, between 70 and 85 medical students are involved in research projects each year, with up to 10 of these individuals selected to present at national events.

University Research Could Help End the Pandemic

With all of the negativity surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, it's good to know that our country's colleges and universities are stepping up and collaborating with not only one another but also government agencies and the private sector.

The brainpower at these universities is astonishing and will no doubt lead us to an effective COVID-19 treatment, while also providing valuable guidance for the establishment of protocols and procedures for fighting future pandemics.


Feature Image: Karen Ducey / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America

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