By Kristen Mitchell
The Biostatistics Center (BSC) at the Milken Institute School of Public Health recently launched three projects to design, conduct, analyze and report on COVID-19 studies. The results from these three studies ultimately could help pave the way toward better prevention and treatment for the deadly disease, which so far has affected more than 4 million people in the United States.
“These projects will help researchers understand the distribution and effects of COVID-19, particularly on underserved populations, ultimately improving public health,” said Scott Evans, director of the GW BSC and founding chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at Milken Institute SPH.
The center, established at GW in 1972, is one of the university’s longest-running research collaborations and brings together experts from across the university to conduct studies addressing issues such as diabetes, maternal health and infectious diseases. Having these experienced research teams in place has enabled GW researchers to act quickly as understanding of COVID-19 evolves.
“When COVID-19 hit, very little was known about it” Dr. Evans said. “You have to build on your infrastructure, your experience and the tools that you have in order to quickly learn about the issues. You follow the rapidly evolving literature and work with other people who are trying to digest all of the information, identify the important research questions, and strategize how we might be able to pursue answers to them by through a better understanding of the disease and its implications”
From developing new air filters to trap the virus to documenting family violence during a pandemic, GW researchers have worked to better understand the challenges associated with COVID-19 across diverse areas of study. This collective focus has the potential to spark new cross-disciplinary projects in the future, Dr. Evans said.
“All of the COVID-19 research efforts that are being conducted in the different areas of the university provides a great opportunity to create a stronger GW research community with more connections and collaborations,” Dr. Evans said.
New BSC Projects
The first project, funded by the state of North Carolina, aims to learn more about COVID-19 by studying patients in five health care systems throughout the state. The BSC serves as the data coordinating center for the project and will work with investigators at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
The researchers will conduct a large study looking for symptoms, evidence of infection as well as potentially protective antibodies. Such tests can determine previous infections with the virus even if people had mild symptoms or no sign of illness at all. In addition, the antibody tests will help determine if people infected with the virus mount an effective immune response, said Diane Uschner, assistant research professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Milken Institute SPH.
BSC will receive nearly $1 million to fund its part of the one-year project.
The second project, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will expand the COVID-19 surveys to multiple states, including Maryland, North Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The BSC will also serve as the data coordinating center for this study of patients at health care systems operated by the University of Maryland, MedStar Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health, Atrium Health in North Carolina, Tulane University and the University of Mississippi. The BSC will combine and evaluate electronic health records and serologic and syndromic testing data for up to 500,000 participants in the study. Vysnova, a government contractor, is the prime awardee of the CDC grant. The BSC has a multi-year subcontract.
These studies will have a significant impact on public health because they target a representative sample of populations in the participating states, said Dr. Uschner, who serves as the principal investigator for the BSC on both studies.
In a third project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the BSC will join researchers across the country to better understand how COVID-19 affects pregnancy outcomes.
Researchers at 12 U.S. clinical centers, which are part of the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network, will track approximately 1,000 to 2,000 pregnant women infected with COVID-19 and continue to monitor them for six weeks after they have given birth. The BSC serves as the data coordinating center for the project and will assist with study design, conduct all the statistical analyses as well as collect data from the 12 clinical centers.
The researchers also will analyze the medical records of 24,000 women to evaluate whether changes to health care delivery and resource reallocation, as a result of the pandemic, have led to higher rates of pregnancy complications and cesarean deliveries. The project will also look to see whether mothers infected with the virus can transmit it to their fetus.
“This study will address whether infection with COVID-19 during pregnancy increases complications and death compared to pregnant women without infection,” said Rebecca Clifton, an associate research professor of epidemiology at Milken Institute SPH and the principal investigator for the data coordinating center on this project. “The project will also look to see whether changes made to the health care of pregnant women during the pandemic have increased risks for both mother and baby.”
Support for the project comes from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.