A $4 million gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation will help scientists at the Keck School of Medicine of USC explore how the novel coronavirus is transmitted, develop treatments and work with public health officials to curtail its spread.

Alongside crucial scientific research into the biology and treatment of COVID-19, experts may use the donation to collaborate with public health specialists to share important health information and understand the impact of the virus on local communities.

“Our scientists at USC are working tirelessly to understand how this virus spreads and affects vulnerable populations,” USC President Carol L. Folt, PhD, said. “This generous gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation will be a wonderful boost to their lifesaving work and will free up other resources so we can continue to reach out to our communities in this time of great need. We are grateful for this critical support.”

The novel coronavirus fund bolsters research and related activities in five areas: virology and immunology; diagnosis and treatment; population health; community outreach; and research infrastructure.

In addition to helping USC scientists accelerate their existing efforts to understand and address the COVID-19 pandemic, the gift has another important effect, said Laura Mosqueda, MD, dean of the Keck School and professor of family medicine.

“At a time when labs have been shut down and everyone is keen to get back to work, this is a terrific morale boost,” Mosqueda said. “We have an outstanding group of researchers and educators who will utilize these funds for the public good.”

Steve Keck, co-president of the W. M. Keck Foundation, said the new funding will enable USC researchers and community engagement experts to strengthen their response to the novel coronavirus.

Joe Day, co-president, added that the foundation’s board was “proud that USC is taking advantage of the important role this renowned research institution has in the health and economy of Los Angeles and its responsibility to serve this community.”

Research and community funding gives USC experts an edge in fight against COVID-19

The school has already established a fast-track process to approve studies involving the novel coronavirus. A formal mechanism to distribute the novel funding to researchers is being developed with input from experts across campus, including scientists in a recently established COVID-19 research group.

“They are very excited about this,” Mosqueda said. “We want to hear from them and others to do all this rapidly, thoughtfully and efficiently, so the funds are distributed as smartly as possible.”

Researchers might use the funding to study how the novel coronavirus spreads, including the basic biology of how it infects the human body and whether some people are especially susceptible. They may also use funds to develop medications and other treatment approaches, ranging from the use of stem cells to infusions of plasma from people who have recovered from the virus.

They also may explore the use of antibody testing to help leaders decide when to ease shelter-at-home restrictions. Efforts to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches that identify early signs of the illness and predict which patients might get sicker are also eligible for the research funds. The fund may support epidemiological studies that examine patterns in how the coronavirus spreads and how people can avoid high-risk social and environmental factors.

USC also expects to use some of the foundation’s gift to provide accurate information about COVID-19 to Los Angeles County communities, as well as encourage healthy behaviors. That support can help USC counter the pandemic’s damage to local neighborhoods. University staff and partners are already distributing food to people who have lost their jobs and struggle to make ends meet.

Finally, the funding pool will provide essential research resources, such as a repository of blood and tissue samples from COVID-19 patients for research projects. Funds dedicated to the medical school’s specialized containment lab will ensure that scientists safely conduct studies using live samples of the coronavirus.

“Another lovely side effect of this gift is that the funding boosts all of the other research going on here,” Mosqueda said. “Setting up this biorepository and stimulating new collaborations and ideas will have a ripple effect of benefits beyond COVID-19.”

With new COVID-19 research fund, Keck Foundation continues legacy of support for USC

This $4 million gift builds on a long history of giving from the W. M. Keck Foundation to USC’s medical enterprise. In 2011, the foundation announced a $150 million naming gift to support medical, clinical and translational research and education, establishing Keck Medicine of USC. That gift followed a similarly transformative gift of $110 million in 1999 to the Keck School.

Another gift of $10 million in 2017 established the Willametta Keck Day Healthcare Center, a new outpatient facility at the Health Sciences Campus. The building houses Keck Medicine clinics for many medical disciplines, including primary care and surgical specialties.

“We’ve enjoyed such a wonderful partnership with the W. M. Keck Foundation,” Mosqueda said. “I can pick up the phone any time to bounce ideas off them and get feedback. It’s nice to have their support — not only financial support but their advice as well.”

The founder of Superior Oil Co., William Myron Keck established the W. M. Keck Foundation in 1954 to support medical, science and engineering research, undergraduate education, and Southern California charities.

— Eric Lindberg