A look at COVID-19 research and activity across U-M


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the University of Michigan works on many levels, but it also has galvanized activity across the university as a broad range of academic, research and administrative units apply their expertise to this worldwide crisis.

These synopses offer a glimpse into the variety of activity underway. Go online to follow the links at the end of each story to learn more.

Wide range of U-M research focuses on coronavirus pandemic

Research projects and innovations related to COVID-19 have ramped up quickly across U-M, spurred by doctors, public health experts, scientists, economists and engineers, and encouraged by research leaders.

Even though the university paused most of its massive laboratory and clinical research operations in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus, hundreds of people from many of U-M’s 19 schools and colleges have connected virtually to start new projects, or adapt their existing work, to address many aspects of the global health crisis.

Dozens of these projects are listed on the new U-M COVID-19 Research Index, and more will soon be added. The projects listed are in various stages of development, from planning to fully launched, and some will require additional regulatory review or funding before proceeding.

Meanwhile, U-M has committed to providing the infrastructure needed for many longer-range studies. These include efforts to identify and develop potential targets for vaccines and treatments, optimize prevention and care strategies, develop new technologies, predict the virus’s effects on individuals and communities, and measure and respond to a wide range of societal effects from the pandemic.

“These are indeed challenging times, but I am confident the generation of scientific knowledge across the University of Michigan will play a critical role as we work together to find solutions to this pandemic,” said Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research.

Examples of COVID-19-related research at U-M.

COVID-19 Research Index.

Kara Gavin, Michigan Medicine Department of Communication

U-M teams work to disinfect masks for medical personnel

The N95 respirator mask is, for many medical care professionals, the first line of defense against COVID-19, and dwindling supplies have been one of the biggest threats to health systems during this pandemic. U-M engineers are working quickly to address the worldwide shortage by developing efficient, effective and scalable ways to disinfect masks, which are typically discarded after one use.

As part of the effort, they’re testing whether the masks still work — and fit well — after repeated rounds of treatment. A viable means of getting multiple uses from masks would help protect doctors and nurses until more masks can be produced.

This effort is a result of a partnership between the College of Engineering and Michigan Medicine to identify problems and assign U-M engineers to address them.

Dozens of researchers from both schools are approaching this task on two fronts. One team is assessing the methods that best inactivate virus particles on N95 masks. A second team is discerning how many times masks can be treated by those methods and still retain their protective capabilities.

Michigan Medicine currently has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. No health-care worker has been denied appropriate PPE, which follows guidelines endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, Michigan Medicine officials report.

Read more about this effort.

Jim Lynch, College of Engineering

Common coronaviruses are highly seasonal, U-M study shows

Four types of human coronaviruses that cause common respiratory infections are sharply seasonal and appear to transmit similarly to influenza in the same population, according to a new study by School of Public Health researchers.

The authors of the study, which appears in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, say it’s not possible to tell whether the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 — SARS-CoV-2 — that causes COVID-19 also behaves like this but hope their findings will help better prepare for what’s yet to come in the pandemic.

“Even though the seasonal coronaviruses found in Michigan are related to the COVID-19 virus, we do not know whether that virus will behave in the future the way these seasonal viruses behave,” said Arnold Monto, the Thomas Francis Collegiate Professor of Epidemiology.

“Only time will tell if SARS-CoV-2 will become a continuing presence in the respiratory infection landscape, continue with limited circulation as with MERS, or like SARS, disappear from humans altogether.”

Read more about this study.

Nardy Baeza Bickel, Michigan News

Repurposed respirator could free ventilators for COVID-19 patients

As intensive care units and emergency rooms around the world see increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19, resource management and control of transmission are two of the greatest challenges faced by providers.

“Rapidly depleting supplies of personal protective equipment, dwindling access to negative pressure rooms and limited stock of mechanical ventilators pose a threat to patients and a strain on health care systems,” says Kevin Ward, professor of emergency medicine and executive director of the Michigan Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care.

U-M researchers have developed a new, portable and mass-producible helmet system that can potentially transform any hospital bed into a negative pressure room, while protecting caregivers and sparing ventilators for the most critical cases.

Built largely from commercially-available parts, the innovation’s compact design effectively isolates COVID-19 positive patients and allows for more liberal use of aggressive respiratory treatments, while decreasing the risk of potential exposure to the virus to health care providers.

Read more about this development.

Megan VanStratt, Michigan Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care

UM-Flint opens residence hall to area health care workers

UM-Flint has opened its First Street Residence Hall to medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors and nurses who work at hospitals in Genesee County may stay in the hall, which has been renamed the Healing Heroes Home. 

“The role of a university is to be a community partner in good times and bad,” said UM-Flint Chancellor Deba Dutta. “When we heard of the need for a place for these medical professionals to get a break that would keep them and their families safe, we knew our residence hall would be an optimal space for them.”

Medical professionals who stay in the UM-Flint hall will pay a nominal $20 nightly fee and have access to bedrooms, bath space and kitchens. There will be no charge for them to park on campus. They will also have access to free WiFi.

In Ann Arbor, University Housing staff are readying now mostly empty campus residence halls, should they be needed, for temporary housing for Michigan Medicine health care providers. Several residence halls are within walking distance to the university’s medical center.

Ann Zaniewski, The University Record

Poverty Solutions issues COVID-19 resource guide for Michiganders

A new Michigan COVID-19 Pandemic Resource Guide provides information on how to access various resources aimed at supporting Michiganders through the coronavirus pandemic and related economic slowdown.

While everyone is affected by the restrictions on public gatherings, business closures and public health concerns, low-wage hourly workers, people with little savings or disposable income, and people living in poverty will have the most difficult time weathering the economic disruption accompanying the crisis, says H. Luke Shaefer, founding director of Poverty Solutions and a professor of social work and public policy.

Poverty Solutions, a U-M initiative aimed at preventing and alleviating poverty, compiled the Michigan COVID-19 Pandemic Resource Guide to help people make sense of the new resources becoming available as a result of the rapidly changing federal, state and local responses to the coronavirus outbreak.

Read more about this project.

Michigan COVID-19 Pandemic Resource Guide.

Lauren Slagter, Poverty Solutions

U-M startup tracking social distancing through street cams

With advanced computer vision models and live public street cam video, a U-M startup is tracking social distancing behaviors in real time at some of the most visited places in the world.

The tool uses the company’s existing platform and underlying custom artificial intelligence to continuously track vehicle, cyclist and pedestrian traffic at seven locations: New York’s Times Square; Abbey Road in London; Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas; Seaside Heights in New Jersey; a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and intersections in Dublin and Prague.

“This pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on our daily lives, and what we’re trying to do is create a tool to improve public awareness,” said Jason Corso, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and CEO of Voxel51, an Ann Arbor video analytics and data management company.

Read more about Voxel51.

Voxel51’s Physical Distancing Index.

Nicole Casal Moore, Michigan News

Staying social while social distancing

As Michiganders are staying inside and practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, maintaining connections with others is essential for our mental health.

Sarah Rosaen, professor of communications studies at UM-Flint, offers several tips to stay social during the period of required social distancing. They range from regular video chats with friends to virtual workouts to sharing art with neighbors.

Read more about staying social while social distancing.

Lindsay Knake, UM-Flint Communications

Library lab director helps provide PPE through Operation Face Shield

Before the U-M Library buildings closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shapiro Design Lab Director Justin Schell took home the lab’s 3-D printer and filament, thinking he could put it to good use. He was right.

Schell and others in the area are using 3-D printers in their homes to print headbands for face shields in response to shortages of personal protective equipment in health care facilities.

Kevin Leeser, a registered nurse, started Operation Face Shield Ann Arbor, which has donated more than 5,000 shields to organizations around the Ann Arbor area.

After printing the headbands, Schell drops them off at Maker Works in Ann Arbor, where they are disinfected and attached to a transparent shield. Then they are given to Operation Face Shield, which passes them on to its distribution network, or given back to U-M at Michigan Medicine’s dropoff site in the North Campus Research Complex.

Read more about Operation Face Shield.

— Danielle Colburn, U-M Library

Website answers questions about federal stimulus checks

A new website aims to make sure Michiganders receive their federal stimulus checks as soon as possible.

The 2020 Coronavirus Stimulus Payment website — developed by Poverty Solutions at U-M in partnership with Detroit-based nonprofit design firm Civilla — walks people through a step-by-step process to ensure they’ve provided the IRS with the information necessary to receive their stimulus checks.

Individuals earning less than $75,000, or married and filing jointly earning less than $150,000, are likely eligible for full payments of $1,200 per adult plus $500 per child under the age of 17. Heads of household making less than $112,500 also are eligible for full stimulus payments.

For most people, the stimulus checks will be directly deposited into the bank account provided on their most recent tax returns or delivered via the Social Security system, starting this month. But people who don’t file taxes, don’t have a bank account, or move frequently and don’t have a stable address where the check can be mailed face barriers to receiving their stimulus checks.

Read more about this effort.

Coronavirus Stimulus Payment website.

Lauren Slagter, Poverty Solutions

14 things to do if someone you live with has COVID-19

If someone you live with is sick and you think it’s COVID-19, they need your help, but you don’t want to get sick too, or pass the virus to others. What can you do?

Even if you don’t know for sure, assume they have it.

The lack of testing kits means you might never know for sure if your family member or roommate has coronavirus or something else. But if they’re running a fever, hacking away with a “dry” cough, or feeling super tired for no apparent reason, it’s quite possible they do.

Michigan Medicine has compiled a list of steps to follow and precautions to take when helping a family member or roommate cope with coronavirus effects, while protecting yourself and others.

Read more about these suggestions.

Kara Gavin, Michigan Medicine Department of Communication

Mandated TB vaccination predicts flattened curves for COVID-19

If the United States had mandatory tuberculosis vaccination in place several decades prior, the total number of coronavirus-related deaths might not have reached triple digits by late March.

In fact, according to a new U-M report, the U.S. would have suffered an estimated 94 deaths, which would have been only 4 percent of the actual death toll of 2,467 in this country on March 29.

The report — titled “Mandated Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccination predicts flattened curves for the spread of COVID-19″ — is an analysis of daily reports of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in more than 50 countries.

Researchers say countries that have a current policy mandating BCG vaccination, a TB vaccine, have significantly slower growth of both cases and deaths, as compared to all other countries.

Read more about the study.

Jared Wadley, Michigan News

Kellogg Eye Center, CoE team up to design eye-exam shield

While COVID-19 is creating a number of unique and unprecedented challenges, the pandemic is sparking collaboration and innovation across Michigan Medicine, including a team from the Kellogg Eye Center and the College of Engineering.

The group joined forces to create a new, larger breath shield that will help providers and patients stay safe.

Knowing that such a shield could have a positive impact on stunting the coronavirus’ trajectory, as well as lead to better infection prevention in the future, the team fast-tracked the project. In less than two weeks, they designed, tested, developed, manufactured and distributed 200 shields for Michigan Medicine facilities.

Read more about this project.

— Karen Hildebrandt, Michigan Medicine Department of Communication

Center for Drug Repurposing searches for coronavirus therapy

Launched late last year, the Center for Drug Repurposing is already taking on the challenge of finding a drug previously approved by the FDA — or more likely a cocktail of several drugs — to battle COVID-19.

A joint venture of the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research and the Life Sciences Institute, the UM-CDR mobilized its resources to begin rapidly identifying and screening drugs from their library of thousands that are most likely to be effective as therapeutic interventions for COVID-19 in the clinical setting.

Assisted by artificial intelligence methods, the U-M team will begin screening all 2,400 FDA approved drugs and will extend screening to experimental compounds from a library of nearly 7,000 compounds in search of an antiviral drug or drug cocktail that is effective against COVID-19.

Read more about the center’s work.

Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research

Making patients resilient to COVID-19

The scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving. Every day, scientists are making discoveries based on years of investment in training and expertise that resulted in the accumulation of large, shared, high quality data sets now ready to be used in the fight against the virus.

Together, researchers have established lasting scientific collaborations and built robust state of the art research infrastructures that are now strongly positioned to tackle emergent questions related to the treatment and spread of disease during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthias Kretzler, professor of internal medicine and research professor in computational medicine and bioinformatics at the Medical School and a member of the Center for RNA Biomedicine, describes a new research protocol he’s launching involving kidney single cell analysis: “We might be able to start collecting and generating data from COVID-19 infected kidney cells as soon as tomorrow, so we can help patients with kidney diseases and those with COVID-19 induced kidney damage. The sooner we can start, the sooner we can find answers.”

Read more about Kretzler’s work at rna.umich.edu/making-patients-resilient/.

Elisabeth Paymal, Center for RNA Biomedicine


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