Collaborative Covid-19 Research Receives National Science Foundation RAPID Grant

June 1, 2020 | Atlanta, GA

Joshua Weitz, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Quantitative Biosciences Program, will expand Covid-19 research on shield immunity thanks to a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant.

Weitz shares that the NSF support is important for a newly developed collaborative effort with Benjamin Lopman, a professor of epidemiology in Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health

The partnership builds on a recent study that Weitz and a dozen scientists from Georgia Tech, McMaster University, and Princeton University published in Nature Medicine, modeling the potential impacts of serological tests to reduce Covid-19 epidemic spread.

Serological tests, or antibody tests, examine blood for traces of antibodies that could indicate past exposure to the virus, and potential levels of immunity. Identifying recovered Covid-19 patients could help cut the risk of expanding economic activity and help minimize infection rates as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

“The core idea of 'shield immunity' is to facilitate interaction substitution enabling recovered individuals to substitute for otherwise risky interactions with infectious individuals," says Weitz, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech. “This could potentially reduce transmission risk and foster a safer return to economic activity. This NSF award will be catalytic to our efforts to learn more about the intervention benefits of shield immunity, even as we learn more about the extent to which recovery implies protection from reinfection.”

The NSF’s RAPID grant program “allows NSF to receive and review proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, as well as quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events,” according to the NSF website.

The agency sent an April 3 “Dear Colleague” letter to the science community, in which it announced it would accept proposals to conduct non-medical, non-clinical-care research that could be used immediately “to explore how to model and understand the spread of Covid-19, to inform and educate about the science of virus transmission and prevention, and to encourage the development of processes and actions to address this global challenge.”

The Georgia Tech and Emory project combines epidemic models of Covid-19 with antibody testing modules to develop approaches to enable shield immunity in practice. “We are particularly grateful for the expedited support by NSF of Covid-19 research at the dynamic interplay between disease dynamics and serological testing,” Weitz says.

Weitz’s lab, the Weitz Group at Georgia Tech, researches how viruses transform human health and the fate of the planet. Weitz is also the founding director of the Quantitative Biosciences Ph.D. Program. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has created various models and figures to explain the virus' spread and epidemiology. 

Weitz and two other professors, Philip Santangelo with Tech’s Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Travis Bedford with the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Division of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, held a Georgia Tech forum in early February on what scientists were saying then about the potential strength, speed, and size of the pandemic.

On April 15, Weitz led an online nonlinear science talk on “Dynamics of Covid-19: Near- and Long-Term Challenges.” In the talk, he shared a preview of the research in the Nature Medicine study, focusing on the need for accurate antibody tests to determine who may have recovered from the disease and may have levels of immunity. “The scale and type of testing matters,” Weitz said then. “PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing provides a snapshot: Are you shedding virus now? Serological testing, when accurate, provides a history: Have you been infected recently or in the past?”

Editor's note: In keeping with changes to Georgia Tech's editorial guidance, on June 1, 2020 we transition from "COVID-19" to "Covid-19" in our stories and posts.

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