Faculty researchers from across campus stepping up to lend their expertise  

The Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine has established a Coronavirus Task Force, led by immunologist Rafick-Pierre Sekaly and virologist Jonathan Karn. Since its inception less than two weeks ago, an overwhelming number of faculty researchers from across every school on campus have stepped up to participate—and continue to do so.

“We have had a strong, collaborative and positive response from our investigators to the call-to-action for research to control the pandemic,” said Pam Davis, senior vice president for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “From virologists to immunologists, from basic scientists to clinicians, including engineers and behavioral scientists and epidemiologists, everyone with something to contribute has stepped forward to help.”

The task force’s immediate goal: to share ideas and expertise to attack the problem, both from a diagnostic and therapeutic approach. The task force is composed of six working groups.

“Science will be how this pandemic is ultimately contained and how the disease, in the end, will be conquered,” Davis said, “and we are proud to step up to contribute.”

Joan Schenkel, assistant dean for research administration in the School of Medicine, and Erin Fogarty, senior director for grants and contracts, were tasked with organizing and recruiting members of the working groups and facilitating and overseeing implementation of the initial meetings. Schenkel provided some insight into the now-campuswide effort.

How did this task force come about, and what is its mission?

School of Medicine Dean Pam Davis and Vice Dean for Research Mark Chance started initial conversations with virology and immunology leaders focused on the speed at which the pandemic is evolving and how Case Western Reserve University could be proactive.

The group quickly realized that to combat the virus, they needed to address issues related to repurposing specific labs, environmental security and lab availability—including adequate space for research in an environment requiring social distancing—as well as an organized approach to external funding opportunities.

So the group expanded and started inviting others to express their interests in COVID-19 research initiatives. Now, we have an active list where principal investigators (PIs) self-assign to one of six COVID-19 Research Committees:

  • Virology and Drug Discovery
  • Immunology and Immunotherapeutics
  • Clinical Samples and Clinical Trials
  • Behavioral Health and Population Outcomes
  • Technology
  • Safety

How many of our researchers are participating?

The list is continuously growing and reached about 200 late Thursday. Many researchers entered their names more than once, so they could self-assign to more than one committee. The list includes participants from every school across the university.

It’s such a large group. How is work being delegated and managed?

Indeed, the list is quite expansive—larger than we foresaw. Jonathan Karn, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, the Richard J. Fasenmyer Professor of Immunopathogenesis, are leading the working groups. Each working group will assign a chair.

Who else is involved?

Sekaly and Karn were asked to initiate meetings, and we hope to see each of the six committees choose a chair. To start, the Steering Committee will include the six working-group chairs, as well as Davis, Chance, Karn, Sekaly and Distinguished University Professor Stan Gerson, director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and the National Center for Regenerative Medicine.

What are the realistic goals…and how quickly?

We hope to address the previously mentioned goals and move toward collaborative research initiatives, cutting-edge research innovation and funding opportunities. External sponsors are already issuing funding opportunities, and the National Institutes of Health engaged its new instrument, known as a Notice of Special Interest, as well as established a means by which researchers can submit requests for COVID-19 research by amending or supplementing existing awards.

You can’t address everything. Any specific priorities?

Research, ASAP! We are mobilizing to address any obstacles, for example adding COVID-19 research/safety protocols to CWRU’s existing lab/research protocols related to live virus research.

We remind ourselves that CWRU has world-known specialists in SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), tuberculosis and HIV research. They represent a paradigm to follow, and they were among the first to offer insights and assistance.


For more information, contact Bill Lubinger at william.lubinger@case.edu.