UAB CFAR receives NIH grant to assess and expand COVID-19 testing for underserved communities

UAB researchers will use existing knowledge and research to address urgent needs for rapid SARS-CoV-2 testing among underserved populations.

Doctor in a protective suit taking a nasal swab from a person to test for possible corona virus infection on the street. Diver through covid-19 testing center in city.Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for AIDS Research have been awarded a two-year, $5 million award to be a site of the National Institutes of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, implementing the RADx Underserved Populations, or RADx-UP, program in local communities.

RADx-UP will support research that aims to better understand COVID-19 testing patterns among underserved and vulnerable populations; strengthen the data on disparities in infection rates, disease progression and outcomes; and develop strategies to reduce the disparities in COVID-19 testing.

From the RADx-UP award, UAB will launch the COVID-19 Community-Engaged Testing Strategy in Alabama, to transfer vast, community-informed HIV-testing knowledge to meet the urgent need for rapid scale-up of SARS-CoV-2 testing among underserved rural, socio-economically disadvantaged, and Black/African American populations.

In collaboration with well-established clinical and community testing partners, regional health education centers, and additional community-based organizations, UAB investigators will work to conduct 36,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests statewide. Investigators will build upon lessons learned from existing HIV research in the state, and study findings will help guide public health messaging and provision of COVID-19 vaccines to rural communities, once proved safe and effective via rigorous clinical trials.

“The RADx program is a bold and ambitious NIH initiative to dramatically increase COVID-19 testing availability, convenience and timeliness,” said Michael Mugavero, M.D., MHSc, professor of medicine in UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases and project investigator. “It is significant that UAB and the state of Alabama will be a part of this unprecedented national initiative, engaging hard-hit communities to expand the reach of testing to underserved and vulnerable rural populations. There is tremendous potential synergy between the UAB CFAR’s efforts to engage with community and public health partners to end HIV in Alabama and the RADx COVID COMET ambitions to overcome COVID-19 disparities experienced by underserved and vulnerable rural communities statewide.”

Evaluation of COVID COMET AL implementation will inform dissemination of this dynamic, data-driven public health testing strategy to maximize impact in addressing disparities in underserved rural communities. It will also guide COVID-19 vaccine dissemination strategies. 

UAB is one of 32 institutions that received an NIH award through the RADx-UP program to support projects designed to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic. These groups include African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Latinos/Latinas, Native Hawaiians, older adults, pregnant women, and those who are homeless or incarcerated.

In addition to faculty in the School of Medicine, the study will be conducted with collaborators from UAB’s School of Public Health, School of Health Professions, and the College of Arts and Sciences. A team of researchers from across campus at UAB will work with clinical and community partners statewide to understand the social and structural factors driving disparities in COVID-19 outcomes.

“It is critical that all Americans have access to rapid, accurate diagnostics for COVID-19, especially underserved and vulnerable populations who are bearing the brunt of this disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “The RADx-UP program will help us better understand and alleviate the barriers to testing for those most vulnerable and reduce the burden of this disease on all Americans.”