Meharry Medical College may not be widely known, but the college that was founded in 1876 in Nashville to teach medicine to former enslaved Africans may be on the verge of a medical breakthrough.
Scientists there are now working on an anti-virus drug and plan to begin testing to prevent COVID-19 within weeks. The coronavirus has infected and killed more African Americans nationwide than other demographics.
“And that makes us all at Meharry compelled to do our best,” said Meharry scientist Dr. Donald Alcendor, in an NBC News interview. Alcendor worked a few years ago on a successful anti-virus to the Zika virus.
“This is bigger than COVID-19,” said Dr. Linda Witt, the senior associate vice president for development at Meharry. “We are called to serve on the front lines. For Meharrians, it’s natural to go into our communities. We exist in the Black community. But it’s at a heightened level now. And having an HBCU presence, voice, and expertise is essential.”
The process of finding a drug to combat coronavirus won’t be easy.
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“The process is understanding how the virus gets into your system, where it goes, and how it infects,” Alcendor explained. “The struggle is that it is a single-strand that produces tremendous inflammation. The patient will feel like he’s drowning.”
Alcendor hopes to have the anti-viral treatment created in the next two weeks. After this, it will go through clinical trials. If those are successful, the drug could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration within a “few months.”
Finding a vaccine for COVID-19 is vital, especially to the scientists at Meharry.
A recent study by ProPublica found that Black people have tested positive and died from the coronavirus at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
Meharry Medical College president and CEO Dr. James Hildreth, an immunologist, has been pushing for COCID-19 screenings in Black neighborhoods.
“I have been pushing for pre-emptive screening with health officials going into the underserved communities to start testing because that would be a way to get in front of it with the most vulnerable public,” Hildreth said. “If you have pre-existing auto-immune disease and the other stated health issues, the outcomes are much more severe. Those are exactly what we have in our communities. The burden of the disease is so much higher.”
For its part, Meharry has administered free drive-up coronavirus tests and screening on its campus, NBC News reported.
Recently, Hildreth and Meharry Medical College teamed up with Congress in an effort to determine why more Black people are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups.
In a proposed Congressional bill that Hildreth helped draft, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would be required “to collect and report racial, ethnic, and other demographic data on COVID-19 testing, treatment, and fatality rates, and provide a summary of the final statistics and a report to Congress within 60 days after the end of the public health emergency,” News Channel 5 reported.
The bill will authorize $50 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health agencies to improve their demographic data collection.