Rice awards first COVID-19 research grants

Diagnostics, detection, better masks and voter safety among initial targets

Mask transposed over a model fo the corona virus

The Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee announced it will support projects to develop affordable diagnostic tools, seals to maximize the efficiency of surgical masks, a system to identify signs of the coronavirus in Houston wastewater and methods to ensure voter safety this fall.

The projects are the first to be backed by the initiative. The application window is open-ended, so additional awards will be announced in the coming weeks, according to the committee led by Marcia O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science. O’Malley is a special adviser to the provost on educational and research initiatives for collaborative health.

Mask transposed over a model fo the corona virus

The highly flexible fund was established to back projects in biomedicine, engineering, social sciences, humanities and other fields intended to help end the pandemic and prepare for similar outbreaks in the future.

The fund open to Rice faculty working on coronavirus-related projects will allow them to quickly access resources for their groups. It will also develop partnerships with the city of Houston and the Texas Medical Center to support projects designed to deal with the immediate and long-term effects of the coronavirus crisis.

The winning proposals:

Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Kathryn Kundrod of Rice and Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center propose the development of a low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic tool to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in less than an hour. The simple-to-use test would rely on an instrument that costs less than $5,000 with a per-test cost under $2, and a total testing time of under 30 minutes.

The team is working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test to five countries in Africa, including Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria, where the Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health currently has research partners and infrastructure. Successful development and scaling will enable broader SARS-CoV-2 testing locally and in low- and middle-income countries where trained personnel, basic laboratory hardware and reagents are not available for widespread testing.

Richards-Kortum is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and a professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and director of Rice 360˚. Kundrod is a graduate student in bioengineering. Schmeler is a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson.

Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere of Rice and Sahil Kapur of MD Anderson are working on a low-cost, easily manufactured rubber harness that can be worn over surgical or cloth masks to seal these masks against the face to reduce exposure to small airborne particles that may contain active viruses.

Robinson is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering. Kemere is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Kapur is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson.

Lauren Stadler, Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins of Rice, in collaboration with the Houston Health Department and Houston Water, plan to collect wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers noted COVID-19 goes undetected in a large percentage of the population because many people are asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms. Because infected individuals shed the virus in stool, wastewater ultimately represents a pooled sample of an entire community. This presents the opportunity to track community infection dynamics.

Data will be used to track infection dynamics in near-real-time with geographic resolution. It will also inform additional testing efforts and policy on scaling back social distancing, as well as potentially enabling early detection of subsequent outbreaks.

Stadler is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Ensor is the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics. Hopkins is a professor in practice of statistics and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department.

Robert Stein, Philip Kortum, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Daniel Wallach and Elizabeth Vann, all of Rice, plan to ask voters and poll workers to identify steps Harris County can take to make voting in person this November safe in case of a continued threat from the coronavirus.

The team will help the Harris County election officials survey voters on how they would prefer to cast their ballots and ask potential poll workers how likely they are to show up for work at polling places in light of the pandemic. The Harris County clerk will use the research to help design changes to in-person voting, both early and on election day. The information they gather will identify ways to inform voters about casting ballots by mail and making voting in person safer.

Stein is the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science. Kortum is an associate professor of psychological sciences. Acemyan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences. Wallach is a professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering. Vann is the director of programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership.