Superfund Research Program

June 2020

NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Centers across the country are contributing their expertise to respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. From increasing testing capacity and improving personal protective equipment to creating online tools and outreach materials, SRP researchers are fighting COVID-19 from the local to the global level.

Increasing Capacity and Protecting the Public

REsearchers working in the River Road Testing Lab.

Researchers organize viral testing kits for area hospitals at the LSU River Road Testing Lab.
(Photo courtesy of LSU)

Louisiana State University (LSU) SRP Center Director Stephania Cormier, Ph.D., and colleagues created a new COVID-19 test lab to help ease the burden on Louisiana hospitals. The lab was set up quickly and can deliver results in hours rather than days. As of early April, the LSU River Road Testing Lab was serving 18 medical facilities.

University of Kentucky SRP Center project leader Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., is developing an antiviral membrane mask to capture and deactivate on contact the virus responsible for COVID-19. The mask has a porous and spongy structure that can capture and effectively deactivate the virus. The project builds off the team’s earlier SRP-funded research to develop membranes to remove hazardous chemicals from the environment.

Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham SRP Center and partners at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are creating tools to rapidly produce face masks and shields. The team created injection molds that will support the production of millions of face masks for health care workers. Vaidya also designed the tools necessary to create a reusable face mask prototype. These tools will help produce more than 300,000 masks each week.

Columbia University SRP researchers Beizhan Yan, Ph.D., and Steve Chillrud, Ph.D., tested a simple method to disinfect and reuse disposable masks. The researchers showed that people can disinfect masks by heating them in a home oven up to 10 times without decreasing the mask’s filter efficiency.

Developing Online Tools

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) SRP Center grantee Ilya Zaslavsky, Ph.D., is part of a team integrating biomedical and environmental datasets to learn more about the spread of COVID-19. The computer model is part of the search engine, Knowledge Open Network and Queries for Research, which joins several computational tools so that researchers can access and integrate relevant data sets from multiple scientific fields.

A team of researchers from the Texas A&M University (TAMU) SRP Center, North Carolina State University (NCSU), and NIEHS collaborated to develop an online dashboard, the COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI). The dashboard creates data visualizations that effectively communicate data and identify COVID-19 hot-spots.

Massachusetts COVID-19 map by city as of May 13, 2020

The map shows confirmed cumulative COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, by city, as of May 13. According to the researchers, the tool can identify areas of need and help allocate resources appropriately during the COVID-19 crisis.
(Photo courtesy of Boston University)

Boston University (BU) SRP Center researchers Jon Levy, Sc.D., Patricia Fabian, ScD., and Madeleine Scammell, Sc.D., worked with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to visualize data on daily COVID-19 cases across Massachusetts. The data visualization and mapping tool includes information on other chronic health conditions, economic vulnerabilities, ability to social distance, and environmental stressors such as air pollution.

Strengthening Partnerships

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., from the TAMU SRP Center, is a member of an NIEHS expert panel charged with identifying COVID-19 environmental health research priorities. She was also appointed to the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, activated as part of the Science Advisory Guide for Emergencies for COVID-19. This directorate supports decision-makers during emergencies by providing them with the latest scientific and technical advice.

University of California, Berkeley SRP Center researcher Daniel Nomura, Ph.D., and colleagues are collaborating with the pharmaceutical company Novartis to discover new therapies for COVID-19. Specifically, they are targeting the virus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2. Nomura and team are developing enzyme inhibitors that bind to and block an essential enzyme of SARS-CoV-2, known as Mpro, which is critical for replication.

In collaboration with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, UCSD researcher Rohit Loomba, M.D., initiated a multicenter clinical trial to examine effectiveness of the drug ramipril against COVID-19. Known as an ACE inhibitor, ramipril works by blocking proteins that drive inflammation and tissue injury in the lung, the primary site of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The researchers will test whether ramipril reduces mortality, intensive care unit admissions, or the need for mechanical ventilation compared to a placebo in COVID-19 patients.

Responding to Community Needs

BU SRP Center Research Translation Core leader, Wendy Heiger-Bernays, Ph.D., is developing a plan for universal COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and infection control for the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Nation in South Dakota. She is working with Boston Medical Center infectious disease expert, David Hamer, M.D., and a Native American physician who is training members of the Sioux Nation to conduct contact tracing.

Heiger-Bernays and team also created and distributed several COVID-19 factsheets to the Lexington and New Bedford, Massachusetts, communities. The factsheets provide guidance for preventing spread of the COVID-19 in grocery stores and restaurants, long-term care facilitates, and large residential and multi-family houses.

Researchers from the University of New Mexico SRP Center developed culturally relevant outreach posters for tribal communities about COVID-19. They are also working with Navajo Nation leaders to identify challenges related to COVID-19 and how to address them.

Leaders at the Duke University, NCSU, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Centers are joining forces to share resources, and better understand and respond to community needs in North Carolina.

Peter Raynor, Ph.D., leader of the SRP-funded occupational safety and health program at the University of Minnesota, created a a video explaining how COVID-19 spreads. The four-minute video is narrated by Raynor and is part of the program’s COVID-19 Microlearning Series on YouTube.