Local org funds $5 million grant for research of COVID-19 treatment

VCU helps fund Virginia Catalyst, which is funding a $5 million research grant to treat COVID-19. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer 

A Richmond nonprofit organization is accepting applications for a $5 million grant to go toward developing a treatment for life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19.

Virginia Catalyst, also known as Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation, began accepting applications for the grant on Jan. 28. The deadline is Friday, and recipients will be announced March 26.

Applicants will tell Virginia Catalyst how they would spend the money, the nonprofit’s president and CEO Mike Grisham said.

“They’re going to lay out what they’re going to achieve, for the money, what their milestones would be,” Grisham said.

VCU pharmaceutics professor Julian Zhu said the team who receives the grant should contact the Food and Drug Administration to ensure they have data to support their tests for the therapeutic drug. 

The process for making a drug is quite long, averaging about seven to 10 years, Zhu said. But due to the pressure of COVID-19, the process could take a shorter amount of time.

“As long as the new drug has demonstrated clinical benefits, without much toxicity, then the FDA or other countries’ FDA can approve,” Zhu said. “So, I see that maybe the amount for a drug approval is a very fast process.”

“Our fundamental mission is to help improve human health and create jobs at the same time,” said CEO of Virginia Catalyst Mike Grisham.

Virginia Catalyst’s plan management and oversight panel will review and rank applications before making a recommendation as to who should receive the fund. Criteria for applicants and more information is available at the organization’s website.

Criteria for recipients includes:

  • Must be a company founded and headquartered in Virginia 
  • Actively conducting U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical trial of a COVID-19 treatment
  • Working with investigators from at least one Virginia research universities
  • Must issue the Virginia Catalyst a sensible sum of value on terms accepted by Virginia Catalyst’s Board of Directors 
  • Able to match funds and other required funding 

Virginia Catalyst is a nonprofit organization funded by the General Assembly and seven research universities: VCU, University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, George Mason University, The College of William and Mary, Old Dominion University and Eastern Virginia Medical School. 

Applications are scored by a team of volunteers, scientists, CEOs of life science companies and venture capitalists, who will allocate the money for the grant. The team includes Ali Andalibi, an associate dean of research at George Mason University, Scott Meza, a shareholder and attorney-at-law at Greenberg Traurig, and Rony Thomas, the CEO and president of LifeNet Health. 

There have been more than 534,000 COVID-19 cases and 6,898 deaths in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health website. There have been a total of 13,563 cases and 143 deaths in Richmond as of Tuesday. 

Noelle Hepworth

Virginia Catalyst will give the grant in stages, and funding can cease if the drug becomes unsafe or ineffective. 

VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said he was aware of VCU’s participation in the effort. 

“Under the effort detailed in the news release, a company would team up with a university research partner and submit an application to be considered for a grant,” Porter said in an email. 

The Virginia General Assembly selected Virginia Catalyst to run a competitive program to allocate the $5 million, Grisham said.

Grisham said he is happy to be a part of the program as it aligns with the goals of his company. He said the grant will improve the health of Virginians and people around the world.

“Our fundamental mission is to help improve human health and create jobs at the same time,” Grisham said.

Zhu shared Grisham’s positive sentiment. 

“It is very hopeful that this drug development can have the resources to proceed,” Zhu said. “People are very hopeful that these drugs can slow down the pandemic.”

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