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Gates Giving $15M to COVID-19 Testing Effort at HBCUs

October 14, 2020

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pumping $15 million over three years into an effort to build out COVID-19 testing capacity at historically Black colleges and universities, it announced Tuesday.

That funding will go to testing operations at as many as 10 HBCUs that have medical, veterinary, pharmacy and agriculture schools. So far, six have been named: Florida A&M University; Hampton University in Virginia; Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Xavier University of Louisiana and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The institutions are serving as hubs in a “hub and spoke” testing model. Under the model, each hub institution has the lab equipment, manpower and expertise to process diagnostic tests from their own campuses and nearby HBCUs. Institutions that are so-called spokes will collect samples and ship them to the hub institutions, where the samples will be processed and results returned to the institution where the testing was performed.

As a result, more test results could become available more quickly than they had been at many different institutions, even those that don’t have their own labs to process results.

“It’s not just about our individual institutions,” Dr. Sandra Harris-Hooker, vice president and executive vice dean for research and academic administration at the Morehouse School of Medicine, said during a webcast announcing the Gates funding. “What this gift does is allow us to also reach out to the other 108 or so historically Black colleges and universities, allowing them that same capacity to open their doors to their students.”

The funding comes at a time when many college and university leaders see frequent COVID-19 testing on campus as a cornerstone strategy making possible in-person instruction without risking widespread infection. But bottlenecks have at times plagued testing nationally, particularly when spikes in new infections have driven up the number of people seeking tests, leading to delays in processing times or shortages of materials needed to process tests.

“We can get more throughput,” said Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M. “That’s really what we need as we bring more and more students and faculty and staff back to the campus environment.”

Gates officials gave several reasons as contributing to the decision to send funding to HBCUs. They include that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color and that young adults have seen a large number of infections in recent months.

The funding is going to HBCUs taking part in The Just Project, an initiative set up by laboratory equipment supplier Thermo Fisher Scientific. Thermo Fisher donated $25 million worth of diagnostic instruments and test kits to HBCUs under the initiative.

Gates Foundation officials hope the efforts will benefit the universities after the pandemic ends.

“It will enable them to strengthen their lab capabilities and research capabilities, and these benefits will extend way beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Toni Hoover, director of strategy, planning and management for global health at the Gates Foundation.

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