TBED efforts to combat the pandemic creating a better future

May 27, 2021
By: Ellen Marrison

As vaccination rates increase across the country and infections fall, the role of science in combatting the COVID-19 virus is front and center. Last week, we brought you stories about SSTI members’ efforts to help small businesses. In today’s story, we share additional feedback from our members that worked to find ways to fight the virus and others who pivoted to help their students continue to learn in a challenging environment.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Emory University’s non-profit drug development company, DRIVE, quickly repurposed a broad-spectrum antiviral drug it had been developing against influenza and equine encephalitis. In 2018, GRA’s venture development program had invested in DRIVE’s pursuit of drug compounds to fight RNA viruses (of which SARS-CoV-2 is one) — and later, the testing of a therapeutic at Georgia State University. The drug that was launched at Emory reduces the virus that causes COVID-19 to undetectable levels. Molnupiravir is being developed further by Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, a closely held biotechnology company, which licensed the drug from DRIVE last year. The drug can be provided as a pill in an outpatient setting, making distribution more convenient and it may help tackle variants, as well.

"There's still an urgent need for an antiviral drug against SARS-CoV-2 that can be easily produced, transported, stored, and administered," says George Painter, PhD, CEO of DRIVE (Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory).

Early efforts in making and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) allowed many workers to continue in their front-line jobs fighting against the virus, while other efforts were directed to continue life and learning as quickly as possible. For instance, in the fall semester, Ohio State University (OSU) partnered with the on-site Applied Microbiology Services Laboratory (AMSL) to provide efficient and cost effective SARS-CoV-2 surveillance testing.

“AMSL’s SARS-CoV-2 lab is saving the university money and saving lives with its same-day turnaround time for test results—but that’s not all. Many of the lab staff are graduate and undergraduate students who are gaining invaluable experience leading the pack in the race to end the pandemic,” wrote Krista Richardson, an OSU senior executive communication specialist.

Testing was also instrumental in the success of a smaller institution, Oak Crest Institute of Science, which implemented a rigorous COVID-testing protocol in March 2020 and have been testing staff, students as well as outside contractors that may have to come into the building . The testing allowed Oak Crest to remain open throughout the pandemic without any in-house transmission. Chris Buser credited the effort of everyone working together with the success of getting regulatory approval and technical capabilities within two weeks, and noted that the peace of mind it gave all employees and their families was invaluable.

In Nebraska, the PPE Partnership Project was a partnership between Nebraska Innovation Studio (NIS), the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Food Processing Center, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. The project empowered entities located at Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) to respond to the needs of its local community, as well as those at the state and national level during the current pandemic. NIS, the makerspace at NIC, developed and distributed over 33,000 face shields to 45 Nebraska communities, five states and a hospital in New York City. Two thousand disposable protective gowns were also made and distributed at a local level. The Food Processing Center, the university’s Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and the Nebraska Ethanol Board formed a partnership to produce hand sanitizer. This effort created a mini startup company that produced and distributed 200,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. The project also engaged several private sector companies and aided in the re-opening process of the university and other schools.

Other PPE shortages across the country spurred similar efforts. In Cincinnati, the 1819 Innovation Hub harnessed its makerspace to produce face shields and partnered with Easterseals of Cincinnati to help with delivery of reusable and single use face shields to frontline healthcare workers.

When the pandemic was declared mid-March of last year, the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA) began devising a plan to help its member and portfolio companies. The board of directors of SCRA’s investment affiliate, SC Launch, Inc., was intimately involved in the company review process and made funding decisions in a condensed period of time. The $1.25 million in COVID-19 response funding was in addition to the normal cycles of funding and support, and was distributed to companies in two major categories — those providing front-line COVID-19 solutions and those suffering from the negative financial impact brought on by the pandemic.

One company receiving investment funding from SC Launch, Inc., was Precision Genetics, which began providing front-line COVID-19 solutions and was able quickly to expand to meet the tremendous demand. The Greenville-based company pivoted from their normal operations of providing advanced molecular testing and other innovative solutions to healthcare providers in the state, to providing crucial broad scale COVID-19 testing, becoming the first major South Carolina COVID-19 testing lab outside of the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control that was able to provide test results within a 24-hour turn around period for healthcare facilities throughout the state.

An equally fast response was happening in North Carolina where academic and commercial scientists across the state embraced the cause, diverting funds, facilities, and expertise to a wide range of tasks aimed at limiting the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its effects on humans.  North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech), a state-supported independent nonprofit established to help guide North Carolina’s life sciences ecosystem growth, pivoted its Science and Technology Development team (SciTech).

“The five-person SciTech group re-positioned a series of upcoming Flash Grant cycles. They decided to solicit proposals from the state’s academic investigators and other inventors seeking to develop new COVID-relevant therapeutics, vaccines and adjuvants, diagnostics, and other testing methodologies, ‘and related innovations,’” wrote Jim Shamp, NCBiotech director of public relations. As a result, NCBiotech garnered 41 COVID-19-related Flash Grant requests and awarded $414,423 to 21 proposals deemed the most compelling.

NCBiotech also issued automatic no-cost extensions to university research awardees’ grant limits and maintained the salaries of the Pfizer fellows while they were unable to conduct their research. It also quickly developed a public awareness program to introduce people left jobless from the pandemic to new possibilities in the state’s huge and growing biomanufacturing sector through its Bio Jobs Hub.

It wasn’t just the research labs that shifted their operations to focus on the pandemic. In Vermont, Vermont EPSCoR offered funds to high school teachers to fund student research kits to conduct lab work from home to continue science education. One teacher who took advantage of the funding modified laboratories for students to use materials available at home, and trained and provided fellow teachers with necessary tools to continue their classes. Funds from NSF VT EPSCoR and Society of Science made it possible for her students to have a variety of science research materials at hand, such as physics and engineering kits, weather sensors and motion cameras. These materials were not traditionally available to students in the teacher’s school, and being able to access those resources was expected to help increase her student’s interest in pursuing and preparing them for STEM careers.

While the above examples are just a fraction of the many ways technology-based economic development organizations and efforts have helped respond to the pandemic, they showcase the power of the field to make a difference and create a better future.

tbed, innovation, coronavirus