NIH to award $234M to support projects bringing COVID-19 testing to underserved populations

Through its COVID-19 diagnostic development initiative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it has awarded nearly $234 million to improve access to testing among underserved and vulnerable populations.

The program will support established screening efforts and community partnerships at 32 U.S. institutions, with focuses on African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Latinos/Latinas and Native Hawaiians, as well as older adults, pregnant women and people who are incarcerated or experiencing homelessness.

“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 Collins, M.D., Ph.D. 

To reduce disparities in testing, the project will first help connect a number of existing, large-scale programs to build a collaborative research network through the agency's first set of awards aimed at developing interventions and strategies for increasing access.

Meanwhile, researchers will also assess how historical, social and economic factors as well as cultural beliefs and preferences may affect the adoption and uptake of COVID-19 screening programs. In addition, a coordination center and data hub will be established at Duke University to provide administrative support and guidance on testing logistics.

“Long-term community engagement efforts established by these researchers and programs provide an essential mechanism for discovering the factors that lead to COVID-19 related disparities,” said Eliseo Pérez-Stable, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. “These existing partnerships will serve as the foundation for swift implementation of interventions to promote greater health equity.

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The $234 million program was borne out of the NIH’s $1.5 billion Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics competition, known as RADx and first launched in April, which has aimed to support the competitive development of a number of testing projects.

Going forward, the underserved populations testing initiative plans to award additional funding, if the money is available, and branch out to cover other aspects of the pandemic such as the distribution of vaccines and therapeutics once they have been proven effective.