Given its dramatic impact on daily life at the University of Iowa, the global spread of COVID-19 makes it tempting to feel pessimistic.

Certainly, this is an unprecedented and challenging time on a scale seen by few people alive today. But stories of quiet heroism, of people on campus and across the state going above and beyond to help one another during this crisis, are emerging every day. They offer glimmers of hope and reminders of why public universities exist: to serve humanity by creating and imparting knowledge and working together to solve the pressing issues of the day.

It’s seen, most strikingly, on the front lines among first-responders in UI Hospitals & Clinics who are working under incredibly stressful circumstances to care for patients diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19, as well as hundreds of patients with other urgent medical needs.

It’s seen among the many staff keeping the university functioning in ways that can’t be Zoomed or Skyped: ensuring that lights stay on and water keeps flowing, helping students move out of dorms, and supporting and feeding UI employees who can’t leave campus because lives depend on their staying put.

And it’s seen across the vast enterprise of UI researchers and scholars, working to protect human health and develop measurements for effectively treating and preventing COVID-19. 

“This is an unprecedented time that calls for unprecedented action and cooperation, and University of Iowa researchers, scientists, and innovators are rising to meet the challenge,” UI Vice President for Research Marty Scholtz said.

One example, Scholtz said, is the work of Stanley Perlman, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology, and of pediatrics, in the Carver College of Medicine (CCOM). A mouse model previously developed by Perlman to study severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was rapidly licensed through the UI Research Foundation (part of OVPR) to be made widely available to researchers across the world working on COVID-19 anti-viral medicines.

“Our licensing arrangement effectively allows the university to get out of the way and get the mouse out to researchers as soon as possible,” Scholtz said.

As research labs have had to enter a kind of hibernation mode temporarily to reduce the risk of virus transmission, primary investigators have been generously offering their personal protection equipment (PPE) for use by UI healthcare employees.

University of Iowa Pharmaceuticals (UIP), a service division within the College of Pharmacy that develops, manufactures, and performs analytical testing on medicinal drugs, has begun making hand sanitizer at the request of its dean, Don Letendre. Most will go to UI Hospitals & Clinics, which like many medical centers across the country face a shortage of the product.

UIP Executive Director Dennis Erb called the COVID-19 situation “an all hands on deck moment in our lifetime.”

UIP has also been approached by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, to discuss its manufacturing capability for a potential vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, should one emerge. Several biotech companies with promising drugs to treat Acute Respiratory Distressed Syndrome, a major cause of COVID-19 related deaths, have also asked about priority manufacture to accelerate clinical testing of their products.

UI faculty and staff are collaborating beyond Iowa City in other ways, as well.

Scholtz said staff at the State Hygienic Lab (SHL), part of OVPR, have been working tirelessly from the very start of the outbreak to quickly process results of tests from hundreds of clinics and hospitals across the state of Iowa. The lab has processed nearly 3,000 tests to date and is now working three shifts a day to meet the demand for testing.

“Under Director Mike Pentella’s leadership, the hygienic lab team is doing a masterful job meeting this unprecedented challenge,” Scholtz said. “The lab has also gotten tremendous support from the state, which underscores that this is a truly collaborative effort.”

Earlier this month, the Iowa General Assembly approved—and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed—a $525,000 supplemental state appropriation for SHL. And the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) provided $375,000 through an amended contract with the lab.

SHL has also gotten a helping hand from Iowa State University (ISU), whose Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has loaned the lab sophisticated test-processing equipment and reagents, the basic chemical compounds needed to test for the virus by isolating and identifying its genetic identity. The additional equipment will allow SHL to run more tests simultaneously and grow its capacity to process a greater volume a tests if, as expected, the number submitted continues to grow exponentially.  

Even companies founded by UI researchers are jumping in to help fight the outbreak.

UI startup company Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) is helping Iowa, and the rest of the country, meet the explosive demand for test components. IDT recently announced its success in ramping up large-scale manufacturing of a key component used to enable testing for COVID-19: a primer and probe kit, which assists in DNA analysis of patient samples.
With its accelerated production, IDT can now produce components for as many as five million tests per week.

“The way through this outbreak isn’t only a scientific question, but a question of human will and courage,” Scholtz said. “The Hawkeye spirit, and the Iowa spirit, make me confident not only that we’ll beat this, but that the University of Iowa will play a significant role in leading the way.”