NIH to fund new diagnostic tests for the emerging, severe childhood illness linked to COVID-19

While most children exposed to the novel coronavirus suffer only a mild infection, others may develop a rare but severe reaction that attacks several organs at once, requiring intensive rescue care.

To better diagnose this complication of COVID-19—known as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C—the National Institutes of Health launched a research funding program that will offer up to $20 million in grants over the next four years.

MIS-C can be fatal, and has been shown to affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin and eyes. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking a group of MIS-C patients—at a median age of eight years old—showed 80% required intensive care, with many receiving ventilator support and treatments for circulatory shock.

Most had tested positive for COVID-19 by either molecular or antibody tests, but early signs and symptoms can range from almost none at all to those seen and unseen—such as fever and cough, or abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as hidden inflammation of the heart’s coronary arteries. 

The NIH’s new effort aims to incorporate new diagnostics for the different genetic, immune, viral and environmental factors that may help predict a child’s chances of progressing to MIS-C.

“We urgently need methods to distinguish children at high risk for MIS-C from those unlikely to experience major ill effects from the virus, so that we can develop early interventions to improve their outcomes, ” said Diana Bianchi, director of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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The institute’s project—dubbed PreVAIL kIds, for Predicting Viral-Associated Inflammatory Disease Severity in Children with Laboratory Diagnostics and Artificial Intelligence—dovetails with the NIH’s “Shark Tank-like” Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, which recently advanced seven projects to its final phases.

PreVAIL kIds will support studies to evaluate genes and other pediatric biomarkers, and projects using machine learning techniques to help develop new tests, by gathering funds from multiple NIH institutes and centers focused on related organs, diseases and determinants of health.