Tackling COVID-19

As one of the first research facilities in the U.S. to receive a COVID-19 sample and begin testing for potential therapies, UNC’s response to the threat of the coronavirus was immediate and remains unyielding. While some of our researchers have been studying coronaviruses for years, many others have pivoted the focus of their research, refitted their labs, and are working collaboratively to better execute a holistic response to the pandemic.

October 22nd, 2020

In nearly every school and department across campus, our researchers are examining the myriad issues raised by SARS-CoV-2. They are at the forefront of developing tests and therapeutics, monitoring the genetic evolution of the virus, and exploring future health impacts faced by COVID-19-positive patients. Carolina researchers are increasing access to resources for vulnerable communities, advising policy makers on public health measures, and working to prepare our state and nation for the economic impact that will continue to be felt for years to come.

“Right now, we have to immediately respond to a community’s needs,” says Lori Carter-Edwards, an associate professor of public health leadership within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “As researchers and public health professionals, we have a responsibility to get information out to people. We believe what we find here is going to be impactful and that we’ll be able to share it with a lot of folks.”

Cater-Edwards is leading the COVID-19 Community Engaged Risk Communication Project. She is working with colleagues at the Word Tabernacle Church, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the N.C. Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the UNC Department of Social Medicine to leverage rural, Black, faith-based social connections to spread critical COVID-19 information now and study the method’s effectiveness for use in future public pandemics.

Melissa Miller, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the UNC School of Medicine, has been leading the development of rapid-result COVID-19 tests to increase statewide testing capacity in North Carolina. Her lab now processes tests from UNC Health facilities across the state and recently passed their 100,000-test mark.

“Putting out 1,000 tests a day has truly impacted our community, not only in terms of trying to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but the ability to do research,” Miller says. “To identify interventions or to study transmission patterns — it all starts with the test – and the impact of that is not measurable.”

Unlike many COVID-19 researchers, Timothy Sheahan has a longstanding relationship with coronaviruses. He’s been studying them for two decades and, in collaboration with UNC virologist Ralph Baric, was testing a drug to combat coronavirus replication before the one that causes COVID-19 hit the world. Remdesivir was first used as an antiviral to treat patients with Ebola virus, and it was Sheahan and Baric who discovered it could also work against all coronaviruses they tested including SARS-CoV-2.

I think this whole experience has made people acutely aware of infectious diseases and the fact that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 have no regard for geography, the color of your skin, what language you speak, or whether or not you are a saint or a sinner,” he says. “I see this as a positive. It’s like Earth has been forced to take a virology class. This has taught people basic public health skills they will carry with them their whole lives.”

Sheahan, Miller, and Carter-Edwards are just a few of many researchers at UNC working to address the pandemic. The collective work of Carolina’s researchers is not only accelerating our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, but it provides a much needed light in the darkness, creating new knowledge and hope as we work together to develop solutions. 

Lori Carter-Edwards is an associate professor in the Public Health Leadership Program and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and the Department of Epidemiology within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is also the director of the Community and Stakeholder Engagement Program in the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute.

Melissa Miller is a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, director of the Clinical Molecular and Microbiology laboratories within the UNC School of Medicine.

Timothy Sheahan is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.