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Howard, Morehouse among five HBCUs to receive millions in new equipment for COVID-19 testing

Thermo Fisher Scientific targets on-campus testing

Howard University is among a pool of five historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to receive a $15 million in new diagnostic instruments from Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. The donations will provide technical assistance for the schools to establish or expand their labs for regular on-campus COVID-19 testing throughout the 2020-’21 school year.

The initiative, called The Just Project after pioneering biologist Ernest Everett Just, is part of Thermo Fisher’s effort to be a leader in COVID-19 testing for returning students, faculty and staff.

Micah Brown, a third-year medical student studying dermatology at Howard University in Washington, finds herself in the middle of a pandemic that is now the third-leading cause of death for Black Americans, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Micah Brown wrote a medical research paper about how to improve access to COVID-19 testing in Washington.

Micah Brown

The 26-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, authored a medical research paper in recent weeks about COVID-19 testing in Washington, looking at ways to improve access to testing in the African American communities east of the Potomac River.

“To be honest, I was very ecstatic,” Brown said of the effort. “Testing is something that’s vital in trying to make sure that we control the disease. I learned that a lot of people just don’t have access — especially here in D.C. People don’t really know [where] the testing areas are or what’s covered by insurance. Some people don’t even have insurance, so it eliminates some of the barriers to testing that I feel hinders a lot of our community from getting testing and knowing their status.”

Besides Howard, the Morehouse School of Medicine (Georgia), Meharry Medical College (Tennessee), Xavier University of Louisiana (New Orleans) and Hampton University (Virginia) were included in the pool.

For Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard, the initiative supports the school’s preexisting efforts to monitor the health of its academic community and the community at large.

“Everything that we do is around the advancement of the African American diaspora and I think it’s important that we continue to stay connected to that,” Frederick said. “We have demonstrated that we set up testing sites in neighborhoods where you have a large proportion of African Americans who are affected and we have been very focused on getting the right types of communications out and partnering with people in the community.”

Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic HBCU in the nation, was a good fit to be included because of its biomedical sciences program, president Reynold Verret told The Undefeated.

“We have the first college of pharmacy that was established in Louisiana [in the 1930s] and we are only one of two,” Verret said. “And we produce more African Americans that go to medical school than any school in the country, and have been doing that for many years.”

Proximity to other Black colleges was also a big factor, said Verret. “We are in a city, New Orleans, with three HBCUs, and in the state of Louisiana we have six. So, if we think about our region, we also reach into our sister schools in Mississippi in Tougaloo as well, and we wanted to facilitate the opening and continuing education at HBCUs. So by having the testing capability, it makes the work we do not only easier but [it also] provides the ability to address the pandemic in very direct ways.”

For Fred Lowery, senior vice president and president, life sciences solutions and laboratory products at Thermo Fisher Scientific, this partnership with HBCUs is both important and personal.

“The pandemic has disproportionately affected the Black community, and historically Black colleges and universities have taken a leadership role in making testing available in order to safely reopen this fall,” said Lowery, who said Thermo Fisher Scientific has been engaged in the effort to increase access to COVID-19 tests since November.

While the initiative is new, Lowery said, there is a sense of urgency, particularly as the pandemic continues to ravage communities of color. “We’re setting up five test centers at HBCUs and that’s the goal by the end of August,” Lowery said. “And we plan to set up another four or five by later this fall — all in an effort to be able to support the demand of all the HBCUs and be able to get test results back in a timely manner.”

The program is open to all HBCUs

While this initial rollout included five schools, Lowery said the goal is to touch every HBCU across the country.

“We’re opening up the program to all HBCUs and we’re going to set up centers where tests can be processed with results [returned] within 24 or 48 hours,” he said. “We’ve been in touch with every HBCU president and we’ve been working down the list to bring people onto the program whenever they’re ready.”

While it’s encouraging that HBCUs are playing a key role relative to COVID-19 testing, Verrett laments that the United States lags behind the rest of the world in terms of how it’s handled COVID-19 from the beginning.

“Clearly, we have missed opportunities to actually control the pandemic,” said Verrett. “If we look at some other nations who’ve applied the basic public health strategies … you can see that their levels of infection and mortality rate are much lower. The fact that we don’t have a national plan has not been helpful to us, and by ‘us’ I mean ‘us’ as a nation. [But] the question is: What can we do now? Now we have some real knowledge; this is a public health emergency, not a political emergency. So we know what we need to do, and it’s important that we get it done.”

“While we haven’t had national direction that has been consistent and coherent, we’ve had remarkable collaboration among investigators, researchers, and clinicians of the kinds that we haven’t seen outside of wartime in America.” – Howard University president Wayne A. I. Frederick

Frederick agrees, but at the same time is encouraged by the spirit of collaboration among people working hard toward finding a vaccine.

“While we haven’t had national direction that has been consistent and coherent, we’ve had remarkable collaboration among investigators, researchers, and clinicians of the kinds that we haven’t seen outside of wartime in America,” he said. “That’s something for us to feel buoyant about. This kind of collaboration will hopefully bring about a viable vaccine in much quicker time than it would in the usual ways we operate in silos.”

Meanwhile, Brown hopes to make a larger impact both on campus and off. Her COVID-19 paper was submitted to the American Medical Association, and she’s waiting to find out whether it will be published.

She gravitated to medicine in elementary school, inspired by her grandfather. “My grandfather was one of the closest people in my family to me,” she said of Reuben Brown, who died in 2018. “He had diabetes, strokes, a lot of different medical conditions, and I was sort of his little doctor growing up, always checking on him.”

She’s confident that her grandfather would be pleased to see the first person in the family finish medical school and help others.

“One year to go, thank God,” said Brown. “My grandfather was my No. 1 fan.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.