The world remains in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking nearly a million lives and wreaking havoc on economies and virtually every facet of our lives.

But fortunately for all of us, Dr. Matthew B. Frieman has spent his entire career studying Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and related strains of the coronavirus.

Now more than ever, we can all be grateful for that expertise as he is one of countless researchers around the world working nonstop to develop a vaccine that will protect us from the current incarnation of COVID.

Dr. Frieman — who earned a doctorate in genetics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine — is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and an affiliate member of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Dr. Matthew B. Frieman: “This new virus transmits just like a common cold virus, but is more fatal.”
Dr. Matthew B. Frieman: “The progression of science in the research is as rapid as anything I’ve ever seen before.” (Provided Photo)

Dr. Frieman has studied viruses for years, but he says until this year “no one really cared or worried. Now, of course, it’s a much bigger deal.”

Dr. Frieman is a member of five University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) research teams to be awarded funding to respond to COVID-19 and beyond.

The seed grants were awarded by the Joint Steering Council of the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State, or MPower, a formal collaboration of UMB and UMCP.

The Steering Council issued the call for proposals to mobilize researchers at both institutions to bring solutions that would offer immediate action to address the pandemic and to prepare for future pandemics.

The winning teams capitalize on the research expertise of UMB and UMCP, and showcase collaboration across multiple colleges and schools, including faculty from UMCP’s College of Arts and Humanities, School of Public Health and College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, partnering with researchers from UMB’s School of Medicine, School of Pharmacy and School of Nursing.

After a review and ranking of 50 submissions by faculty peer representatives from both UMB and UMCP, the Steering Council awarded $500,000 in funding to five teams: two to support vaccine development; one to develop a rapid testing method; one to study psychological factors of vaccine acceptance among African-Americans; and one to explore the use of an artificial intelligence tool for delivery of child behavioral health services via telemedicine in rural communities.

Being able to build on previous SARS research means that Dr. Frieman has a jump-start just when it’s been needed most.

“The progression of science in the research is as rapid as anything I’ve ever seen before,” he says, pointing out that he is working not only with researchers at UMB and UMCP but with personnel from various universities, as well as government-based researchers such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and pharmaceutical labs such as Novavax, Regeneron and AstraZeneca.

To date, Dr. Frieman is encouraged by the findings, saying that “so far, Phase 1 research is very pretty.” Dr. Frieman says he also is optimistic that 2 billion doses of an effective vaccine will be available before the end of 2021.

“A lot is going on and we haven’t really stopped since January,” he says. “It’s important to get things out of the lab and to clinical trials as soon as possible.”

That doesn’t mean safety isn’t paramount, Dr. Frieman says, observing that “warp speed” doesn’t mean corners are being cut in the development and testing phase. Instead, he says, time is being compressed in the midpoints of the vaccine development process, such as funding and manufacturing. Many drugs already are being tested, Dr. Frieman notes, and there will continue to be even more people in clinical trials as the research goes on.

Technology and Engagement

Dr. Gloria M. Reeves, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate professor of psychiatry in the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, is another grant recipient. Her research will focus on the study of artificial intelligence-based technology strategies to help child behavioral health providers improve caregiver engagement in rural Maryland communities.

“With the recent pandemic, most of these services are provided virtually through video-conferencing platforms,” says Dr. Reeves, who is co-principal investigator with Dr. Aniket Bera, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies in College Park.

While telehealth has its advantages (not having to travel to the health care provider, for example), there are downsides, too, such as being unable to have eye contact between the patient and provider.

Dr. Reeves and Dr. Bera will collect and analyze information — such as speech patterns and facial expressions — from videotaped sessions and use artificial intelligence tools to assess how well the provider and the patient (or as is so often the case with children in a behavioral health setting, their parents) are interacting.

“We want to learn how to use technology to better engage people,” says Dr. Reeves, adding that this is especially important now as more people are taking advantage of telehealth to avoid social interaction, and because rural areas generally have fewer health services.

Reeves sees the end goal of the research as helping to support parents in working with their children as an “agent of change.”

The project is in its early stages and Dr. Reeves and Dr. Bera do not yet have any preliminary findings, but they expect that their research will have effects long after the pandemic is over.

“I expect that telehealth will continue to grow,” says Reeves.

We still likely have a long way to go before the pandemic is behind us, but Dr. Frieman says he believes we’re heading in the right direction, and UMB and UMCP’s collaborative focus on innovative research is an important part of that.

“I am very optimistic about where we are now,” he says.

A former Baltimorean, Carol Sorgen is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer.