Superfund Research Program

December 2020

SARS-CoV-2 virus

SARS-CoV-2 virus.
(Photo courtesy of CDC Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins)

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) provided supplemental funding to four centers to expand the focus of their research to address critical knowledge gaps related to exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its disease, COVID-19. In response to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, this funding encourages SRP researchers to address the public health crisis and its disparate effects on vulnerable populations.

Together, the projects demonstrate the scientific diversity in SRP and how its researchers can leverage the program's research infrastructure, along with other funding opportunities, when public health emergencies arise.

University of Alabama Birmingham

At the University of Alabama Birmingham SRP Center, researchers are developing biodegradable, low-cost, reusable masks to protect Birmingham communities and health care workers from COVID-19. Their SRP-funded research on developing natural and recycled fiber materials to filter out contaminants in soil is foundational to the effort. Using regenerated natural cellulose fiber from wood pulp, the team will develop and test the masks to meet N95 standards for protection against viruses. These biofriendly masks will be distributed to local communities and health care workers to optimize ease of use. This project can lower COVID-19 risk in Birmingham communities and potentially reduce the amount of masks disposed in landfills.

North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University (NCSU) SRP Center scientists are expanding their research to assess how exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may affect health outcomes related to COVID-19. Center research focuses on how PFAS exposure affects immune health in humans and bioaccumulation of PFAS in aquatic food webs. Led by Jane Hoppin, Ph.D., researchers will characterize COVID-19 cases, antibodies, symptoms, and severity in two PFAS-exposed populations in North Carolina. Their work includes collecting blood samples, administering questionnaires, and conducting antibody tests on about 1,000 individuals aged 6-86. The researchers will work with community partners, local non-governmental organizations, and health departments to report back their results to the communities.

Researchers from the University of Georgia, in collaboration with Erin Baker, Ph.D., from the NCSU SRP Center, will examine how PFAS exposure affects COVID-19 susceptibility and severity. Exposure to PFAS, which are are known to suppress the immune system, may make individuals more susceptible to viral infections. In this project, the group will infect ferrets previously exposed to PFAS with SARS-CoV-2 to determine how PFAS exposure alters COVID-19 symptoms and susceptibility. They will examine changes in the metabolome. The team will make its data publicly available.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) SRP Center is developing a geographic information systems approach to spatially evaluate the association between exposure to arsenic, social stressors, and COVID-19 in North Carolina. Center researchers address public health challenges in communities exposed to arsenic through well water. They report that arsenic is an immunosuppressant and could worsen COVID-19 susceptibility or outcomes; therefore, communities with high arsenic exposure are at risk. The group will integrate data on arsenic in drinking water with data on COVID-19 cases and social stressors, such as neighborhood violence, unemployment, and poverty, to identify particularly vulnerable areas and opportunities for prevention approaches. Findings from this project will be disseminated to community members and stakeholders via the NC-ENVIRO-SCAN website, a public health tool that will be developed by experts at the Center.

In a separate project, UNC SRP Center researchers will conduct studies in human cells and mice to explore the underlying mechanism by which exposure to arsenic alters susceptibility to and severity of COVID-19. The researchers will characterize interactions between arsenic exposure and COVID-19 infection utilizing novel laboratory models previously developed by the group. The laboratory models consist of human nasal epithelial cells from female and male donors, and a novel mouse model in which the metabolism of arsenic resembles that in humans. The group will also examine the role of sex and other genetic factors in COVID-19 outcomes.

As an extension of these two projects, UNC SRP Center researchers are partnering with local North Carolina high school teachers to develop educational materials for communities. They aim to empower people to take health-protective actions that will reduce their exposure to environmental chemicals and COVID-19 infection.

University of California, San Diego

At the University of California (UC), San Diego SRP Center, researchers are leveraging their work to identify molecular targets for reducing an inflammatory immune response to explore new treatment options to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. They will use nanotechnology to develop and test a novel strategy to deliver and repurpose the anti-inflammatory type 2 diabetes drug, metformin, as an inhalant to reduce acute respiratory distress from COVID-19 in mice. Acute respiratory distress triggers the excessive inflammatory reaction that is associated with the most severe or lethal COVID-19 cases. The group will also evaluate if obesity, triclosan exposure, and age increase the severity of respiratory distress and if treatment with metformin mitigates these effects.

A second type of NIH award went to UC San Diego SRP Center researchers to implement a widespread COVID-19 testing program in San Ysidro, California, located on the U.S.-Mexico border. This award is part of the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnosis for Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiative. RADx-UP supports researchers to speed innovation in technologies for COVID-19 testing for underserved and vulnerable populations across the U.S.

The San Ysidro community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with the highest incidence of cases in San Diego County and a shortage of testing. Through RADx-UP, Center researchers, led by Director Robert Tukey, Ph.D., developed a new high-throughput, FDA-authorized testing method that provides inexpensive, rapid, and accurate detection of COVID-19 infection. They will work with local health organizations and community partners to implement and evaluate the testing program. By working closely with community members, they will also identify and address barriers to testing, including stigma, distrust, and lack of scientific knowledge. The project's overarching goal is to eliminate disparities in access to COVID-19 testing in underserved communities.