In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Tech researchers and scientists initiated numerous research projects in an effort to support the local community and to affect humanity on a global scale.

To support COVID-related research and provide immediate support for Virginia Tech researchers, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation collaborated with Virginia Tech institutes and colleges to establish a COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Fund. Faculty, staff, and students were encouraged to submit proposals that utilized their expertise to identify problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic and seek partnerships with interdisciplinary researchers, industry, and federal agencies to create novel solutions needed now and in the future.

“The pandemic provides an unprecedented opportunity to mobilize Virginia Tech expertise to provide rapid innovation of solutions,” said Don Taylor, interim vice president for research and innovation. “I am grateful to Matt Hulver for leading this effort to design the fund program that allowed our researchers to quickly shift gears and work on various COVID-related projects.”

Hulver joined the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech as executive director in March and at a time of critical need for the research organization. He currently leads the COVID-19 Rapid Response Team that seeks to identify and provide opportunities for Virginia Tech researchers. In his role with Fralin Life Sciences Institute, Hulver will work to shape the new vision and programs by leveraging existing strength and developing a strategic plan to enhance resources for Virginia Tech’s life sciences community. 

“I was impressed by the large number of faculty willing to use their expertise to tackle COVID-19. The quantity and quality of the applications submitted really speaks to the commitment of the Virginia Tech community to Ut Prosim,” said Hulver, who organized the submission process for the seed fund and headed the proposal review committee. “I also want to thank Janet Webster, who leads Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s VT-FAST, for coordinating the review process; Karen Roberto, executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment; Ben Knapp, director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; and Stefan Duma, the director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science; for their contributions to the COVID-19 seed fund and their role in project reviews.”

Nearly 100 COVID research proposals were submitted and reviewed by Virginia Tech faculty representing various disciplines across campus. The following nine projects were selected:

Neurological impacts of SARS-CoV-2

Severe headaches and cognitive impairment, such as memory lapses or sleep disorders, are commonly reported among individuals with mild to moderate symptomatic infections resulting from SARS-CoV-2. In those with severe illness, other neurologic manifestations have been reported, including acute cerebrovascular events, loss of sensation or tingling in extremities, impaired consciousness, and sudden stroke. Thus, COVID-19 has a substantial impact on the peripheral and central nervous system. One unusual symptom reported by patients testing positive for SARS-Co-V-2 is a loss of the sense of smell, or anosmia. Anosmia has been suggested as a first diagnostic indicator for acquisition of the virus.

In this project, the researchers will assess the spread pathway of SARS-CoV-2 infection through the neurons of the olfactory system and into the brain. A better understanding of the way the infection spreads, as well as the neurological damage done by the virus, may highlight treatment options and recovery prospects of COVID-related neurological disorders, as well as inform implications for using the unusual symptom of anosmia as a diagnostic indicator. These studies address clinical management of the disease by determining the neurological impacts of the virus, the impact of the pandemic and its aftermath on the well-being of people, and may contribute to the development of approaches to quantify and/or mitigate the unanticipated consequences of COVID-19 on society. Results will also serve as preliminary data for submission of collaborative proposals to external funding opportunities to further investigate neurological impacts of SARS-CoV-2 and to develop ways to manage or mitigate these impacts.

The research team includes two faculty members of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine: Andrea Bertke, associate professor of infectious diseases and neurovirology, and James Weger, assistant professor of virology and host factors. Also, on the team is Jonathan Auguste, assistant professor of arbovirology and molecular biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Changes in long-term care services and supports for persons with dementia during a pandemic

While the stay-at-home order has slowed the spread of COVID-19, one result is a reduction in availability of services for persons with dementia, particularly for those living in rural communities. Families who previously relied on home care workers and adult care centers for assistance in caring for their relatives now find themselves providing continuous care with minimal opportunity for respite. The result can be greater feelings of loneliness and isolation for both caregivers and care recipients.

This project will use mixed methods data (structured telephone survey items and open-ended questions), combined with geographic and county-level data on availability of health care services and the spread of the coronavirus, to look at the immediate and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on these families. Findings will provide valuable and highly relevant information for planning and delivering targeted services and programs in underserved rural areas, particularly during times of extreme distress.

Tina Savla, professor of human development and family science and a core faculty member in the Center for Gerontology, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is the lead on the project. Other researchers are: Shyam Ranganathan, assistant professor of statistics in the College of Science; Aubrey L. Knight, professor of family and community medicine at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Brandy McCann, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Gerontology. Community partners are: Michael Wampler, executive director of Mountain Empire Older Citizens Inc., and Mike Williams, founder and CEO of English Meadows Senior Living, which operates eight senior living communities across Virginia.

Respiratory illness surveillance platform for epidemiological monitoring and forecasting

A scalable, highly deployable, cost-effective approach for monitoring respiratory illness could directly be used for public health epidemic forecasting of respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19, flu, or the next pandemic. This project will focus on a valuable new source of data for predicting epidemiological trends in real time: the coughing rate. Using acoustic sensors, along with automatic cough detection, researchers will capture coughing sounds from public spaces, clinical examination rooms, or such institutions as schools, nursing homes, or prisons, to determine the coughing rate over time at various locations. A coughing rate signal, which depends on geospatial location and time, would be an important data stream for a statewide or national center for disease detection and forecasting. While cough is a common symptom of several non-COVID-19 related medical conditions, new data-driven methods will be used to classify coughs based on their most probable associated conditions, providing a rich multidimensional coughing rate signal across time and geography. 

The project researchers are: Shane Ross, professor of aerospace and ocean engineering in the College of Engineering; W. Nathan Alexander, assistant professor of aerospace and ocean engineering; and Andre A. Muelenaer, professor of pediatrics at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and faculty of biomedical engineering and mechanics

Impact of COVID-19 in adolescents with and without ADHD

At best, the COVID-19 crisis is confusing, disruptive, and inconvenient. For many the situation poses not only the physical risk of the COVID-19 virus itself, but also the mental health, social, behavioral, and economic risks that accompany the crisis. These risks are likely to be particularly magnified and salient in young people with pre-existing mental health and neurodevelopmental risks, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The primary goal of this study is to leverage an already-recruited longitudinal sample of 260 adolescents with and without ADHD who reside in Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky to examine COVID-19-related adjustment. Specifically, this study seeks to identify predictors of COVID-19-related coping and resilience among adolescents and their families, examine the immediate and short-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis for adolescent adjustment, and explore whether adjustment, coping, and predictors differ for adolescents with and without ADHD.

The project is led by Rosanna Breaux, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Science. Other researchers are: Stephen Becker, associate professor of behavioral medicine and clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; Joshua Langberg, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University; Melissa Dvorsky, postdoctoral scholar in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco; and Emma Scibberras, associate professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

Establishment of a reverse genetics system for investigating the replication, host range, antiviral screening, and live attenuated vaccine application for the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding the mechanisms underlying its high replication efficiency inside human cells and rapid transmission among humans will provide insights into viral transmissibility and pathogenesis, and may identify targets for virus control. These goals will be accelerated with an easy and efficient reverse genetics system that allows manipulations of the viral RNA genome. Taking advantage of the yeast-based cloning platform, this project will make various SARS-CoV-2 cDNAs by assembling the 30-kb-long viral cDNAs in a single transformation, homologous recombination event. With these cDNA clones and reporter viruses, the team will use high-throughput methods to study therapeutic interventions, identify mouse-adapted viruses for animal studies and attenuated viruses for vaccine development, as well as investigate virus-host interactions and viral replication mechanisms. 

The project’s lead is Xiaofeng Wang, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Other researchers are: Jonathan Auguste, assistant professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; James Weger-Lucarelli, research assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and Fralin Life Sciences Institute; and Kylene Kehn-Hall, student in the biomedical sciences and pathobiology department.

Best practices to support K-12 STEM remote learning in underserved communities

Even under typical conditions, it is common for some students to lose skills achieved in the school year during the summer, particularly if they do not have access to reliable internet connectivity and/or lack access to educational summer programs. This limited educational access during the summer may magnify urban/rural, racial, socio-economic, and other disparities in education for the students in these underserved communities. When Virginia’s K-12 schools shifted from in-classroom to remote learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it essentially added an additional three-month “summer” of limited educational access to these students.

To address this problem, this team of researchers is developing high-quality STEM-based educational activities to minimize the achievement gap for Virginia students upon their return to in-class instruction. This effort, though initially motivated by the pandemic, is seen as an opportunity to build an interdisciplinary working group that can continue to develop summer programming and supplementary materials during the regular academic year to help close the achievement gap for underserved Virginia students.

Leading this project is Leigh-Anne Krometis, associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Other researchers are Madeline Schreiber, professor and associate department head of the geosciences department in the College of Science; Durelle Scott, associate professor of biological sciences engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Luke Juran, associate professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment; Erika Bonnett, 4-H Specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Erin Ling, water quality Extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Assessment and mitigation of COVID-19 airborne exposure risk in indoor environments with automated building systems

Physical distancing is a critical step in reducing the probability of airborne exposures and physical transmissions during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the trade-off between reducing the exposure and resuming economic activities is of critical importance; therefore, it is important to understand how economic activities could be resumed while reducing the risk of exposure. An important factor in this direction is to understand the role of buildings and building systems in affecting the risk of exposure. There have been questions on how building systems, specifically HVAC systems, could potentially increase the risk of exposure. In this project, researchers are seeking to understand the ways that smart building systems could be leveraged to assess exposure risk and provide mitigating strategies.

Researchers on this project are: Farrokh Jazizadeh, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering; Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering; and two members of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia: Arsalan Heydarian, assistant professor of systems and environment engineering, and Nicola Bezzo, assistant professor of systems and environment engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

Rapid development of poly-nano neutralizing antibodies against SARS-COV-2 for topical lung and intravenous delivery using gnotobiotic alpaca

Among numerous clinical trials of investigational therapeutics for COVID-19, the most encouraging strategy is plasma therapy, because plasma from recovered patients contains broadly reactive neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. However, there are limitations in the supply of convalescent plasma and risks associated with transfer of blood substances. To overcome the limitations and avoid the risks, this project will focus on generating anti-SARS-CoV-2 nanobodies using germ-free gnotobiotic alpaca. In addition to normal antibodies, Camelids make a special type antibody called single-domain antibody. The systemic immune system of germ-free alpaca does not encounter any foreign antigens; thus, immunizations with SARS-CoV-2 will allow the generation of a nanobody pool entirely against SARS-CoV-2 antigens. The nanobodies will be use in two ways: to generate SARS-CoV-2 specific nanobody formulations that can be delivered to the nasal cavity, nasopharynx, and lung via a self-administered nasal spray or nebulizer; and to generate a humanized multispecific neutralizing IgG1 intravenous biologic drug for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. The concepts and technologies developed in this project will allow the development of antibody therapeutic products against other agents, such as other respiratory viruses and zootoxins. It will enable a rapid response to future pandemics and epidemics of human infectious diseases.

Lijuan Yuan, professor of virology and immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, leads this project with Jonathan Auguste, assistant professor of arbovirology and molecular biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Rapid and resilient reusable respirator manufacturing

To address the shortage of N95-quality respirators caused by the disruption of the global supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic, this team is investigating a novel approach for fabricating reusable respirators by vacuuming forming them from additively manufactured tooling. 3D printed inserts for securely holding filter media and printed molds for casting flexible face seals are also employed. The process leverages advanced manufacturing processes that are scalable, rapidly reconfigurable, and resilient, allowing rapid production of sterilizable respirators. Quantitative filtration efficiency measurements and qualitative fit testing will be used to verify the effectiveness of the fabricated respirators.

Christopher Williams, the L.S. Randolph Professor in Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the DREAMS lab, leads this project.

To support the Virginia Tech COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Fund, visit Virginia Tech's crowdfunding platform to learn more. Support will provide initial funding to faculty, staff, and students utilizing their expertise to investigate problems and help Hokie researchers advance the fight against COVID-19.

Read this article on the Virginia Tech News website.