Dr. Hirendrana Banerjee is the principal investigator on a grant to research the mutation of the COVID-19 virus.
Elizabeth City State University has received a $75,000 grant from the UNC System to support ongoing research into the mutation of the COVID-19 virus. According to the grant’s principal investigator, Dr. Hirendrana Banerjee, there are multiple strains of the virus and identifying which one is infecting the people throughout the Northeastern North Carolina region is important to future vaccine development.
“If we can identify the strains and compare them to the rest of the country, we can develop new vaccines,” said Dr. Banerjee, an ECSU natural sciences professor who holds a medical degree and a Ph.D. in biology. “Our current vaccines will help but we will have to develop new vaccines moving forward.”
According to Dr. Banerjee, viruses have unstable genome and they mutate. He said new strains identified around the world – the South African and United Kingdom strains are the most recent – are a product of this natural tendency for mutation.
“Every six months to a year, the viral genome changes,” he said.
Last spring, the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill awarded ECSU $1 million to aid in COVD-19 research, testing, and other related activities. Dr. Banerjee was, he said, approached by ECSU’s COVID-19 Mitigation Project lead, Dr. Kuldeep Rawat, dean of the School of Science, Aviation, Health and Technology, to establish a “COVID detection lab.”
With the aid of three natural science graduate students – Joseph Headley, Kayla Johnson, and Chelsea Aurelius – Dr. Banerjee says he is working to identify which strains are impacting the region. Currently, counties all across Northeastern North Carolina are seeing a surge in COVID-19 infections and it is important that samples from tests are gathered and examined.
Professor of computer science and mathematics, Dr. Dipendra Sengupta, is a co-principal investigator on this grant.
Last semester, according to Dr. Banerjee, Dr. Rawat, ECSU professor Dr. Anthony Emekalem, and Department of Natural Sciences research operations manager, Sheryl Bradford, began gathering virus samples from across the region. With the recent purchase of research equipment, his students began testing the samples.
According to Dr. Rawat, the ECSU COVID-19 Mitigation Project testing will resume later this month. Dr. Banerjee said that continued testing will give his team the information necessary to move forward with his research.
In addition to providing COVID-19 testing, the ECSU Mitigation project announced earlier this week that ECSU has entered into Mutual Use Agreements (MUAs) with Sentara Albemarle Medical Center and Albemarle Regional Health Services to provide ultra-low temperature storage freezers for vaccine storage. The MUAs also outline a strategy for the institutions to share resources to better fight the rising tide of the virus.