USF Research News

USF Creates Pandemic Response Research Network, Invests in Projects Addressing Coronavirus Outbreak

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Initiative organizes USF’s research efforts to fight current and future pandemics.


TAMPA, Fla. (April 22, 2020) – The University of South Florida COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program has selected 14 projects to receive initial funding for research on potential treatments, technologies and social mitigation strategies in the wake of the global pandemic.

USF is investing nearly $340,000 to start this group of interdisciplinary projects, which seek to address the pandemic by exploring many different facets, including discovering potential treatments for COVID-19 infections, developing new technologies to help prevent the spread of the virus, launching efforts to protect public safety and managing the emotional impacts of the virus. Six of the projects involve patented or patent-pending technologies developed at USF.

Funding from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council also will support some of the projects.

The goal of the effort is to quickly scale up these projects in the next few months, while USF researchers also seek longer-term federal research support through the recently passed C.A.R.E.S. Act and other sources.

“The breadth and depth of efforts by the University of South Florida scientists, physicians, innovators and scholars to respond to all aspects of this pandemic reflects our institution’s commitment to high-impact research and public service,” USF President Steven Currall said. “We are moving quickly with our brightest and most creative faculty and student researchers collaborating to find solutions to the complex challenges presented by current and future global health crises. This is precisely the role of a metropolitan public research university, a responsibility we take very seriously.”

The projects selected for the first round of funding are:

  • Serological Correlates to Immunity in SARS-CoV-2 Infection
    PI: Dr. Kami Kim, Morsani College of Medicine, Director, Division of Infectious Disease & International Medicine

This project would explore the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and potential immunity using a combination of tests to determine which best detects whether a person is immune to the virus or not. The research is important to determine whom among the medical staff are potentially immune to SARS-CoV-2, who can return to work safely because they have developed an immunity to the virus, and will allow researchers to recalculate a more accurate fatality rate among the general population.

  • Self-Contained Acoustic Isolation and Detection System (SCAIDS) for SARS-CoV-2 and its Antibodies
    PI: Dr. Venkat Bhethanabotla, College of Engineering

The current gold standard for diagnosis is PCR (polymearase chain reaction, which detects viral RNA or DNA), but PCR has several drawbacks including specialized testing facilities and an expensive processing time that can take up to 48 hours to obtain results. Other methods of testing also have considerable flaws that make widespread testing time consuming and expensive. This project proposes adapting a portable biomarker detection system — now under development by USF and Moffitt Cancer Center researchers to quantify cancer biomarkers in human blood — and adapt the platform to detect SARS-CoV-2.

  • Sterilization Mechanism of Corona Discharge for Masks and Environment to Combat COVID-19
    PI: Dr. Ying Zhong, College of Engineering

This team proposes addressing the shortage of N95 masks using a newly created technology that can rapidly sterilize and restore the masks’ filtration effectiveness. Using the mechanism of corona discharge to destroy viruses and bacteria, this technology is under development to rapidly sterilize PPE such as single-use N95 masks for healthcare workers and make them reusable. The aim of the technology is to further reduce PPE shortage issues while protecting the safety of medical personnel. The researchers also are working to develop the technology to offer an efficient sterilization solution for other commonly shared surfaces to prevent COVID-19 spread. The USF inventors have filed a new patent application on the technology and are working to establish an industry partnership to rapidly advance the research and development of these new devices.

  • SARS-CoVid-19 Tissue-specific Susceptibility in Different Ethnic backgrounds.
    PI: Dr. Thomas McDonald; Morsani College of Medicine, USF Health Heart Institute

The project would attempt to understand SARS-CoV-2 disparities among ethnic groups. COVID-19 victims are disproportionately represented by those with pre-existing cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension and heart failure, and by specific ethnic groups. In some disease hot spots, African-Americans and Hispanics have double the infection rates and mortality from COVID-19. The project would explore important unanswered questions on racial disparities and COVID-19, including whether ethnic differences in infection rates and cardiovascular complications are solely due to socioeconomic disparities, or if there are cellular-level or other medical explanations.

  • Planning for Hurricane Shelter Operations During a Pandemic
    PI: Dr. Jennifer Marshall, College of Public Health

This research will outline key considerations for sheltering and evacuation in the era of COVID-19. The potential risk of COVID19 infections spreading among shelter residents and between shelter residents and staff increases with proximity. The researchers plan to address these complex concerns by conducting a gap analysis of current shelter plans and available resources that meet national guidelines and best practices.

  • Secure Mobile Contact Tracing App
    PI: Dr. Jean-Francois Biasse, College of Arts & Sciences

The researchers are developing a new approach to contact-tracing via the Bluetooth-LE signal of smartphones that would advance contact tracing for communicable diseases. The first phase of the research would develop a secure system for critical organizations allowing their members to report their condition and to isolate/test members who have been in contact with confirmed cases. A second phase of the project would allow for volunteer participants to report their condition and learn if they have been in close contact with confirmed cases without revealing their identity.

  • Social Closeness Despite Social Distance: A Study of Strategies to Fight Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic
    PI: Dr. Fallon R. Goodman, College of Arts & Sciences, Department of Psychology, Director, Emotion and Resilience Laboratory

The COVID-19 pandemic has fractured social support systems and the effects of loneliness will likely be magnified during social distancing, especially among those with pre-existing psychological vulnerabilities, such as depression and anxiety. The project will document and analyze the impact of COVID-19 on psychosocial and physical well-being and work to develop new tolls and solutions to help vulnerable people maintain social connections while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

  • A 2-in-1 Nano-aerosols Development to Mitigate COVID-19 Spread in Both Humans and PPE
    PI: Dr. Alya Limayem, Taneja College of Pharmacy

The project would develop nanocomponents that have demonstrated effects on multi-drug resistance bacteria and are a promising agent against virus replication. The project will explore if the nanocomponents can be coated onto PPE as a preventive measure and possibly even in humans.

  • A Novel therapy for High-risk Critically Ill COVID-19 Patients
    PI: Dr. Subhra Mohapatra, Morsani College of Medicine

This proposal focuses on repurposing an anti-diabetic FDA-approved drug pioglitazone as an adjunct therapy to mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy for treating COVID-19. Since coronaviruses are known to affect the brain stem respiratory center, there is an urgent need to find a suitable treatment strategy. Pioglitazone has anti-inflammatory activity while also increasing the effect of stem cell therapy in traumatic brain injury. Pioglitazone also possesses antiviral properties and provides protection against RNA viruses, the project’s leaders report.

  • Remdesivir Ophthalmic Drops for Prevention of Covid-19 Transmission Via Eye
    PI: Dr. Vijaykumar Sutariya, Taneja College of Pharmacy

The Center for Diseases and Control recommends Remdesivir as therapeutic option for patients with COVID-19. A study from China suggests that up to one third of people hospitalized with coronavirus experienced viral pink eye or conjunctivitis. The virus can spread by touching fluid from an infected person’s eyes, or from objects that carry the fluid5. The researchers plan to formulate and characterize Remdesivir ophthalmic as a potential for prevention of transmission of the diseases via eye and the potential for treatment for conjunctivitis caused by the infection.

    PI: Dr. Usha Menon, College of Nursing

The human behavioral response during a pandemic illness such as COVID-19 is not well understood, and the abundance of information shared through various channels can reduce the public’s ability to identify and adhere to evidence-based guidelines. The project will lead an interdisciplinary study to analyze risk behavior, risk mitigation and chronic disease management and work to deliver tailored messaging to encourage safer behaviors among individuals at risk for infection.

  • Rapid Development of Covid-19 Therapies and Evaluation of Side Effects
    PI: Dr. Robert Frisina, Department of Medical Engineering

The project would build upon a recently received National Institutes of Health grant to study cellular autophagy pathways in epithelial cells in the cochlea, and how autophagy relates to hearing loss and deafness. The researchers report that the autophagy pathway — a relatively under-studied cellular pathway — is a leading candidate for being involved in killing the COVID-19 virus. The researchers will investigate the autophagy pathway in epithelial cells treated with two existing drugs being studied for COVID-19 infections.

  • Sniffing out COVID-19: A Novel Nanofilm Detector System
    PI: Dr. Salvatore Morgera, College of Engineering

USF engineers are exploring the concept of developing an “electronic nose” that uses sensitive electronic systems with unique sensor array technology to test the breath of potentially infected people for COVID-19 and other coronaviruses when they are exhaled.

  • Alternative Processing of Civil and Criminal Justice System Matters for People with Behavioral Health Disorders
    PI: Dr. Annette Christy, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences

Social distancing requirements to stem the spread of COVID-19 has had an impact on the legal system, particularly in proceedings which involve persons with mental and substance use disorder who undergo clinical assessments and hearings for involuntary hospitalization under Florida’s Baker Act. USF researchers will conduct a six-month study on the use of technology to carry out clinical assessment and justice system hearings in both civil and criminal justice system cases involving people with mental and substance abuse issues.

USF recently launched the Pandemic Response Research Network™, an interdisciplinary collaboration of its leading scientists whose research addresses the issues surrounding pandemics and to organize USF resources to ensure that research and innovation related to COVID-19 was targeted, efficient and effective.

“USF faculty have been eager to respond quickly to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 with their expertise, skills and talent,” said Dr. Paul Sanberg, USF’s Senior Vice President for Research, Innovation & Knowledge Enterprise. “We are a university with a strong tradition of addressing major crises by ramping up research and innovation efforts which produce new knowledge, treatments, tools and technologies to help communities become healthier and more resilient.”

Pandemic Response Research Network