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Chicago COVID researchers get $7.4 million in private funding

Rush, UIC, Lurie are among those awarded grants from the Walder Foundation of Skokie.

COVID-19 testing area at University of Chicago Hospital in March.
A private grant will support wider testing and COVID-19 research in Chicago.
Sun-Times file

A Skokie foundation pledged $7.4 million in funding to provide more widespread free COVID-19 testing, study risks among children, find ways to predict virus outbreaks and related research.

Eight programs, mostly led by researchers at some of Chicago’s leading teaching hospitals, are working in collaboration with state and local health departments with money provided by the 2-year-old Walder Foundation.

The programs are designed to address immediate needs during the pandemic and to explore how to detect early warning signs and try to mitigate future virus outbreaks. Findings are expected to inform public health policy on testing, prevention and racial health disparities, said Sandra Laney, Walder Foundation’s senior director of science innovation.

“We really landed on a portfolio of projects that were driven by health departments’ needs,” Laney said.

The one-year grants range from $300,000 to $1.25 million each. The winners were selected from more than 20 applications, Laney said.

In one program, Rush University Medical Center will work with 13 churches to provide free testing on the West Side. Rush doctors hope to test 8,000 people through next summer, said project leader Dr. Elizabeth Lynch.

In another program aimed at areas of the city lacking testing sites, University of Illinois at Chicago aims to collect 7,000 COVID-19 saliva samples from residents who conduct the tests themselves at their homes or elsewhere over the next year, said Dr. Renee Tayor of UIC.

The University of Chicago also received funding to develop a new COVID test that can be completed at home and would yield rapid results.

Another UIC study will research if wastewater can be analyzed to give public health officials advance warnings of a potential viral outbreak.

In another program, a doctor at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago will lead a dozen researchers to study virus risks for children. The project will assess virus spread among school children, and researchers will report back to the city by the end of the year, said Dr. Larry Kociolek, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist.

The other projects include a Loyola University testing program and study in Black and Latino communities; research by Rush doctors to analyze the virus and the immune system; and genetic analysis led by Center for Computational Science Research in Chicago.

Elizabeth and Joseph Walder formed the Walder Foundation in 2018 to fund scientific innovation and other programs and quickly shifted the focus to the pandemic this year.

“One of the special attributes of philanthropy is it is uniquely positioned to respond to a crisis,” said Elizabeth Walder, executive director of the foundation.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.