Faculty and Research Administrators Mobilize a Research Infrastructure to Combat the COVID Pandemic

In light of the pandemic’s global impact, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) placed the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic at the forefront of its research focus. This initiative, led by research faculty, was organized and facilitated by the critical work of faculty at CWRU and across our affiliates. Together, faculty leaders and the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative (CTSC) removed many roadblocks and optimized processes in an effort to enable research, pilot reviews/awards and proposal submission to progress with minimal barriers. 

The CWRU response was organized by the COVID Research Task Force and was comprised of a multidisciplinary group of 268 faculty drawn from across CWRU and our affiliates, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth and the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.

To start, the group recognized the need to inventory research faculty to identify investigators with the wide ranging expertise needed to address the challenges posed by SARS- CoV-2 and its impact on population health. Research administration leaders, therefore:

  • utilizing the inventory, established a networking infrastructure including an active and relational database to record all research interests across 4 institutions;
  • identified resources available for sharing such as samples, equipment, animal models, and viral constructs, as well as connections with community partners and community-based data collection methods
  • created a website with coinciding sub-websites for each of the 5 research working groups;
  • established administrative support for each research working group; and
  • built a central repository and updates for COVID pandemic funding opportunities.

The relational database helped the faculty co-chairs of the COVID Research Task Force organize and populate 5 working groups: Immunology and Immunotherapeutics, Clinical Trials and Samples, Virology and Drug Discovery, Behavioral Health and Population Outcomes, and Biosafety (to facilitate laboratory resources and facilities for virus research).

Simultaneously, six research administrators from different departments, termed “COVID Warriors,” stood up an administrative infrastructure intended to organize weekly working group meetings; codify the synergistic activity occurring during the meetings and assist when the discussions turned into proposals, reviews, submissions and awards.

Led by CWRU’s Associate Vice President for Research, Joan Schenkel (formerly the Assistant Dean of Research in the School of Medicine) and the Assistant Dean of Research in the CWRU School of Medicine, Erin Fogarty (formerly the Senior Director of the SOM Grants and Contracts Office), the COVID Warriors:

  • disseminated and publicized the database for recruitment and assignment to working groups;
  • provided daily updates on funding opportunities for SARS CoV-2 research, federal and foundation relations;
  • managed and engaged faculty in action plans for each working group;
  • worked closely with the CTSC to develop, review, and award COVID-19 research pilot funds; and
  • organized an all-day COVID-19 virtual symposium.

These efforts successfully developed and launched a Rapid-Response COVID-19 Research Pilot Program early in the pandemic that engaged 7 funders to provide over $500k to support a wide range of COVID-related research pilots. The Community and Collaboration Component of the CTSC developed the entire RFA, review and selection process, including organizing a peer-review panel for each funder and illuminated each of the funder’s funding/research priorities. This CTSC component continues to track the progress of each pilot grant. The role of the CTSC was critical not only due to its ability to pivot quickly to support new research endeavors, but provided easy access to its existing research network among our partners and affiliates, including the Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, University Hospitals and the VA. The Pilot Program received 48 applications involving 160 investigators from across the CWRU campus and our health system partners; 18 projects were awarded.

Overall, Task Force members have submitted close to 300 proposals to sponsors, including federal, state, local, foundation and industry requests for proposals. Among the multitude of awards between May-September 2020, were large supplements to existing awards (NOSI’s) as well as 2 funded U01s of 3 U01 submissions.

The Task Force, the CTSC and its administrative infrastructure is an essential resource to the broader Cleveland community as CWRU and its partners continue to address the public health threat posed by SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging pathogens. Research administrators and faculty leaders are now pursuing the creation of a COVID Research Center.

This article was co-authored by Erin Fogarty, Assistant Dean in the Office of Research Administration and Elaine Borawski, Angela Bowen Williamson Professor of Community Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition and co-lead of the CTSC Community and Collaboration component, both in the CWRU School of Medicine.

The COVID Research Task Force welcomes inquiries or SARS-CoV-2 research related questions at: SOMCOVID19@case.edu.