Michigan’s three URC universities deeply involved in fighting COVID-19 crisis


Commentary by University Research Corridor presidents Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Mark S. Schlissel and M. Roy Wilson

Published in Crain’s Detroit April 26, 2020

 

Michigan needs its great public research universities more now than ever. And we are bringing all of our resources to this fight.

Our medical and nursing schools, our engineers and economists, our public health and environment researchers, our psychologists and social workers — we are in this together.

It is imperative that the three major state universities that make up Michigan's University Research Corridor — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — are at the front lines and in the laboratories battling the COVID-19 pandemic. URC researchers have joined forces to develop tests, treat the virus and create vaccines. We've shifted resources and converted existing lab space to the cause. Wayne State and four metropolitan Detroit hospital systems are collaborating to bring large-scale COVID-19 drug trials to Southeast Michigan. U-M's clinics and hospitals have made rapid adjustments to protect health care workers while increasing the number of COVID-19 patients who can receive world-class care.

These efforts have yielded promising results, including a test validated by MSU researchers to detect coronavirus that's more accurate than those currently available. By using different chemical reagents than those in short supply for the standard test, we're helping address the national shortage of testing kits and speeding up results. There is no doubt that health care workers are the heroes of this effort, but the unsung heroes just may be the faculty in the labs of research universities, working tirelessly to understand and defeat this virus.

We're also leading efforts to establish testing centers for first responders, health care workers and vulnerable populations. Wayne State has collaborated with a number of partners on early testing, including the city of Detroit and corporate and foundation partners. The university has set up a mental health hotline to help health care workers and first responders in metro Detroit and is also giving K-12 parents online resources for keeping their children engaged and busy now that they're not in school.

URC experts are helping business owners figure out ways to deal with the economic chaos COVID-19 is causing. Scientists at UM are using artificial intelligence to identify a drug previously approved by the FDA — or more likely, a cocktail of several drugs — that could be used against COVID-19. Hundreds more studies and projects have been launched.

And all three of our universities are continuing to offer classes online so our combined tens of thousands of college students will continue to learn, innovate and grow into the engaged citizens our state will need.

They're playing a significant role in helping address the shortage of personal protection equipment, developing efficient, effective and scalable ways to decontaminate N-95 masks, creating face shields with 3D printers and donating PPEs from their campus supplies. They're also providing tips for food safety and cooking at home and reiterating the social distancing message statewide through MSU Extension Offices and health care facilities tied to our universities from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit.

But it is through our combined efforts that we hope to do the most good. Together, we conduct 94 percent of the academic life science research and development in Michigan. We're educating the many medical and biological sciences researchers who can help understand and find ways to defeat this virus.

We're also training thousands of physicians, nurses and other health care workers who are on the front lines in dealing with the virus. Four out of every 10 doctors in Michigan graduated from a URC university. The URC universities graduated 2,468 medical professionals in 2018, more than any other university research cluster in the nation. The URC schools also awarded the most nursing degrees.

Our medical and nursing schools have also moved thousands of new health care professionals to the front lines, in cooperation with the state of Michigan, enabling them to provide much-needed health care service prior to completing board certifications.

Every day finds us working with officials at the local, state and federal levels to provide answers on what COVID-19 is doing to our communities. All three of us serve on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Michigan Economic Recovery Council as public health advisers.

Additionally, we are addressing the disproportionate toll this virus is taking on African Americans in Detroit and wherever health disparities exist. President Wilson, former deputy director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and now a member of Governor Whitmer's Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, has urged local, state and national leadership to focus on what can be done to narrow racial disparities through more effective communications targeted toward African American communities and removal of barriers to testing.

Our three URC universities are fully committed to leading the fight, together, to overcome this horrific pandemic.

 

Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., is president of Michigan State University; Mark S. Schlissel is president of the University of Michigan; and M. Roy Wilson is president of Wayne State University. Presidents Stanley and Wilson graduated together from Harvard Medical School, while Schlissel earned his medical and Ph.D. degrees from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine