DGHI Pilot Grants Support Innovative Pandemic Projects

Research will address key issues such as vaccine distribution, pathogen detection and the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published September 09, 2020 under Research News

Duke COVID-19 research

Nine months after the novel coronavirus began to spread among human populations, the world still faces critical challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 40 DGHI faculty have pivoted to conduct research related to this global health crisis, in many cases launching projects outside of their existing research and with minimal or no external funding.

During summer 2020, DGHI awarded pilot grants to support several teams working to understand key questions related to the pandemic. Wendy Prudhomme-O’Meara and Kelly Deal, DGHI’s associate and assistant director of research, respectively, recently talked with researchers on each f these projects about their goals and progress.

Preparing for a COVID-19 Vaccine

DGHI’s pilot grants are supporting two important efforts led by the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health (CPIGH) to identify the most effective strategies to ensure that global allocation of a COVID-19 vaccine achieves maximum public health impact and equity.

In one project, CPIGH director Gavin Yamey, professor of the practice of policy and global health, and David McAdams, a professor in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, are working with the World Health Organization and Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, to map out strategies for deploying an effective COVID-19 vaccine worldwide. Fundamental to their work is defining strategies that prevent high-income countries from monopolizing effective vaccines and instead ensuring that all countries have equal access.

At the same time, DGHI assistant professor Osondu Ogbuoji is leading efforts to help countries prepare for vaccine deployment by making key investments to strengthen their national health systems. Ogbuoji is leading a diverse, interdisciplinary team including physicians, health finance experts, engineers, policymakers, economists and infectious disease epidemiologists from several countries to identify concrete, actionable steps that can strengthen health systems to deal not only with COVID-19, but health challenges beyond the pandemic.

New Ways to Support Mental Health in a Pandemic

Many families are experiencing unprecedented stress and isolation during this pandemic, even as access to mental health and family services is restricted. DGHI’s global mental health research group has been working for years to develop alternative interventions that can provide support in places where formal mental health services are scarce – strategies that may prove effective to aid families during the pandemic.

Eve Puffer, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and global health, and Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an associate professor of global health, are working to implement such interventions to help support caregivers in the Durham community. Their work centers on promoting a healthy, hopeful outlook even while confronting the stresses of the pandemic. They plan to share ideas and results with researchers worldwide.

DGHI also awarded a pilot grant to support an assessment of the economic and mental health burden of the COVID-19 pandemic in three low- and middle-income countries, led by professors Christine Gray, Kathryn Whetten and Nathan Thielman.

Early Detection of Novel Infectious Diseases

DGHI is supporting two projects seeking to create a global network to discover and detect novel pathogens like the coronavirus behind COVID-19 as soon as they begin to infect humans.

Led by DGHI professors and infectious disease experts Gregory Gray and Gayani Tillekeratne, this project involves testing samples from patients with pneumonia at hospitals in several countries, including Malaysia, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Samples will be evaluated on site, and through further testing at Duke labs, for the presence of several different viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The goal of the study is to establish a network of hospitals for surveillance of emerging viral respiratory pathogens, which would serve as an early warning system to identify novel zoonotic pre-pandemic viruses.

Central to this program is building capacity for virus detection in partner laboratories in a sustainable way that provides actionable information for local clinicians and public health experts.