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Eight historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have received millions in funding that will allow them to expand and establish on-campus COVID-19 testing facilities.

Thermo Fisher Scientific donated $15 million in diagnostic instruments and test kits to the HBCUs as part of The Just Project, which seeks to address the COVID-19 pandemic in communities of color.

Black Americans have experienced the highest COVID-19 mortality rate (97.9 deaths per 100,000) in the country, more than twice the mortality rate for white Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab.

As of Oct. 5, the donations had been given to Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, Xavier University of Louisiana, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M University, and North Carolina A&T University, with more expected to be announced.

“Our first priority is to ensure a safe and healthy environment on our campuses,” said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, in a statement. “The support we receive from Thermo Fisher Scientific through The Just Project allows us to offer easy access to COVID-19 testing that is so important to getting our students back to school safely.”

Sheream Reed, a student at Meharry’s school of dentistry checks someone in and directs them to the next step for their COVID-19 test at Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church during a testing event where the church teamed up with Meharry Medical College to provide free COVID-19 testing to the public Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Photo: Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean)

The donations will allow the universities to establish or expand on-campus laboratories that can process COVID-19 tests, something that can ensure quicker results but also cut costs for HBCUs previously forced to use third-party labs.

“The pandemic has disproportionately affected the Black community, and historically black colleges and universities have taken a leadership role in making testing available in order to safely reopen this fall,” said Fred Lowery, senior vice president and president of Life Sciences Solutions and Laboratory Products at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

MORE: In the Deep South, coronavirus reveals systemic issues hurting vulnerable black communities

“These schools play an important role in closing the achievement gap in America and consistently train talented STEM professionals who are invaluable to companies like ours seeking to attract top talent and build a more inclusive workplace.”

Patrick Johnson, SVP at Meharry Medical College, speaks during “Conscious Conversation,” a community meeting to discuss the future of Nashville General Hospital held at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, Thursday, January 11, 2018. (Photo: Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean)

Meharry Medical College’s Dr. Donald Alcendor has been working to develop a COVID-19 antiviral two years after he successfully developed a potential cure for the Zika virus.

Meanwhile, the university’s ability to test students for the novel coronavirus was hindered by a reliance on third-party labs, which can be costly and not conducive to quickly identifying spreads, said Meharry Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement Patrick Johnson.

With the donation, Meharry is able to manage its own lab testing schedule, ensuring quicker results and hopefully a safer campus, Johnson said.

“There were stretches where it could be a week, sometimes two weeks for a result if there was a backup at the lab or they ran out of reagent,” Johnson said. “Now we are no longer dependent on third-party labs. I can’t overstate the importance of that in creating a more safe environment.”

Dr. C. Reynold Verret, new Xavier University president (Photo: Xavier)

At Xavier University of Louisiana, President Dr. Reynold Verret said the expanded laboratories will allow the university to process tests for the school and sister institutions, measures that can help keep surrounding communities safe. That’s crucial in New Orleans, a city that was an early COVID-19 hotspot.

“It adds great peace of mind. You never want to fly blind in a storm,” Verret said.

Still, the impact of the donation will go beyond the current pandemic.

Verret said the equipment can be used to test for other biological markers that can assist in the university’s research on regional health disparities. Johnson said the added space and throughput of the labs at Meharry will increase the university’s capacity to research potential COVID-19 cures.

“I don’t want to say it levels the playing field, but it allows these institutions to participate in the clinical research areas at a level that, previous to COVID-19, we weren’t able to,” Johnson said.

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at [email protected] Sign up for The American South newsletter.

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