Joining the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, producing critically needed personal protection equipment (PPE) and lessening racial disparities in health care are just some of the ways Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) is helping the state deal with the pandemic. The university alliance also is creating the programs and support students, parents and teachers need to successfully transition to online learning, according to a new URC brief, Confronting COVID-19: Research, Innovation and Leadership.

URC COVID19 Brief 2020 (PDF) |  URC COVID19 References (PDF)

The brief focuses on how Michigan’s top three research universities that make up the URC — Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M) and Wayne State University (WSU) — are collaboratively working to solve the many challenges COVID-19 has brought to medicine, education, the economy, and everyday life. The fact that all three universities are headed by presidents with medical degrees brings an extra level of expertise to their efforts.

“Michigan needs its great public research universities more now than ever, and we are bringing all our resources to this fight,” said MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “Our medical and nursing schools, our engineers and economists, our public health and environment researchers, our psychologists and social workers are all working to help Michigan residents, health care providers, elected officials and business leaders deal with the pandemic.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, URC researchers have joined the race to fight COVID-19 by studying ways to contain its spread, developing more effective and efficient screening, testing and tracing, working to find drugs that could treat COVID-19 and contributing to the global race to develop a vaccine. They’ve worked on the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project and conducted research into COVID-19’s long-term effects on patients, including cataloguing inflammatory reactions and psychological ones. They’ve tapped nanotechnology to diagnose infection and given guidance to doctors treating COVID-19 patients on which antibiotics may do more harm than good.

“We’re providing our intellectual resources to find a vaccine and effective treatments for COVID-19, as well as ways to help prevent its spread,” said U-M President Mark S. Schlissel. “For instance, researchers at all three of our universities are testing wastewater to determine if COVID-19 outbreaks can be identified that way. That could help communities — including our campuses —learn about outbreaks in time to contain them.”

In the area of education, the URC universities worked quickly to mobilize technology to support students and instructors making the change to fully online learning when students had to be sent home this spring. They also put more resources, where needed, into supporting both online and in-person classes this fall. In addition, URC education experts have provided resources and expertise to help K-12 educators, students and parents deal with distance learning and prepare for new ways to offer instruction this fall. WSU, MSU and U-M all have pushed to make broadband access more available statewide.

Those aren’t the only areas where URC researchers have jumped in. Doctors and nurses trained at URC universities served on the front lines during the height of the crisis and remain ready for any additional waves of the virus. They shifted to helping patients through telemedicine and resumed in-person medical care and surgeries as soon as they could safely do so.

Just as importantly, they found solutions to lessen the racial disparity in health care treatment and outcomes that made Blacks and Hispanics more likely to get COVID-19 and to experience worse responses.

“Faculty at all three universities were addressing the health disparities between populations that existed before the COVID-19 crisis that have become even more glaringly clear during the pandemic,” said Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson, who serves on Gov. Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. “We want to use what we’ve learned through U-M’s Poverty Solutions, MSU’s Extension Service and WSU’s Office of Women’s Health to help officials and health care workers deal with these disparities and how they’re playing out in the current health care crisis.”

As state and local leaders work to determine the best policies to protect the lives of their constituents while balancing the effects on the economy and people’s livelihoods, URC leaders and experts have been providing counsel to them.

That includes providing businesses with advice on how to institute safe health screenings and flexible work arrangements for their employees. URC experts helped businesses understand and navigate disruptions to our health care and food supply chains, and guided manufacturers interested in switching to producing essential pandemic items, such as protective garments and equipment, medical parts for respirators and pumps to spray disinfectants. And URC institutions supported entrepreneurship by moving COVID-19 related technologies to the lab and launching financial support for small businesses.

“The URC COVID-19 brief showcases the many positive contributions the URC has made in the state of Michigan and nationwide in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and in helping people cope with this extraordinary challenge,” said URC Executive Director Britany Affolter-Caine. “COVID-19 underscores the value of having research universities with the scope and scale of Michigan’s three largest research universities ready to fight a global pandemic by mobilizing expertise and research amassed over decades.”