‘U’, MSU and WSU leaders discuss COVID-19 vaccine research, support for small businesses

Thursday, April 23, 2020 - 6:00pm

U-M President Mark Schlissel discussed COVID-19 vaccines and economic support for small businesses via telephone town hall Thursday afternoon.

U-M President Mark Schlissel discussed COVID-19 vaccines and economic support for small businesses via telephone town hall Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

The Detroit Regional Chamber held a COVID-19 telephone town hall with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley and Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson on Thursday afternoon. 

During the town hall, they discussed topics including research developments, economy rebooting and balancing the duties of being leaders of large institutions with the knowledge they all bring to the table as medical doctors. Sandy K. Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, moderated the call. 

These three universities make up Michigan’s University Research Corridor and have quickly launched several initiatives to assist the state in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. These initiatives include vaccine and treatment research, moving new healthcare workers into the field, setting up hotlines to help healthcare workers and perfecting processes for the sanitizing of used masks. 

Wilson affirmed the universities’ efforts in the midst of the pandemic as a demonstration of collaboration and support for the public good in Detroit, a hotspot for COVID-19.  

“It is remarkable that although we are all very, very different, we have some similarities,” Wilson said. “One of them is that we are very present and engaged with the city of Detroit.”

Detroit, home to Wayne State, has quickly become a center for COVID-19 and has exposed the health disparities existing within the African-American population. Though 12% of Michigan residents are African American, African Americans make up 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state. Wilson hopes disparities exposed by the virus will help society address the underlying issues that make African Americans more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“If there is one thing I’m hoping that happens as a positive outcome of this pandemic, it’s that these tragic deaths wake up our consciousness and allow us as a society to move more urgently to address some of the underlying issues that are causing these deaths,” Wilson said.

Schlissel touched on another common thread between the three institutions: research. 

“One of the things this pandemic points out is the value of our nation’s investment in its research universities,” Schlissel said. “We’re in much better state as a nation, or even as a state than we were 50 or 80 years ago.” 

Baruah asked each president to report their  respective institutions’ progress as the virus takes a toll on residents and the economy. 

Stanley shared MSU's success in developing a molecular test for COVID-19 that can detect lower amounts of the virus in the bloodstream, making it more accurate and allowing them to start treating patients earlier. Additionally, he said MSU is part of a larger group of institutions from around the country that conducts studies on how plasma from recovered patients can be used to treat ill patients. 

Wilson shared WSU’s establishment of mobile testing sites through collaboration with Ford Motor Company. He explained how the testing sites will help broaden the scope of testing for more vulnerable populations.

“Initially they were drive-through sites where you had to drive to it and we would test you, but now given the fact that there has not been enough testing particularly in these vulnerable populations, we have converted to a drive-to capability through a partnership with Ford Motor Company,” Wilson said. “We have a number of cars that are equipped to be able to go to hotspot sites around the city and actually be able to physically do the tests there.”

Schlissel discussed the University’s work surrounding drug discovery for COVID-19 in recent weeks. 

“We’re actually applying the tools of artificial intelligence to look at all existing drugs that are already approved to treat other diseases,” Schlissel said. “We’re using computational methods to suggest which ones are most likely to have a possible effect against COVID-19.”

Additionally, the University is implementing computer models to effectively allocate medical equipment throughout the University of Michigan Health System. Schlissel added the University is taking steps to help small businesses in metro Detroit understand the CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic relief package for qualified households and small businesses.

Baruah asked Schlissel to reflect on the position he is in as a medical doctor while running a financial operation with many stakeholders. Schlissel explained how making decisions for the University through a combination of data and collaboration reminds him of medicine. 

“My medical background helps me understand the nature of the disease, the way medical knowledge is acquired and the limitations of medicine,” Schlissel said. “One of the interesting skill sets you develop as a physician is the ability to make decisions with imperfect information. We’re often making decisions in the setting of uncertainty and there is certainly uncertainty about how this epidemic is going to play out.”

The speakers also stressed the importance of collaborating with each other when making decisions about the fall semester. Stanley noted it is important to take into account the needs of the surrounding communities, not just what’s best for the campus.

“A lot of it is not just what happens on your campus, but what happens in the community around your campus,” Stanley said. “You might be able to mitigate some day-to-day risk on your campus but not what happens in the surrounding areas.” 

Baruah concluded by thanking the universities for their research during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These three universities can offer a public service as I think they all are,” Baruah said. “These are what universities are all about and it brings out the best in all of us.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu.