Florida A&M University (FAMU) received $1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to operate its own COVID-19 testing lab and serve as a hub for other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Florida. The agreement provides funding through October 2022.
President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., joined other HBCU administrators and Gates Foundation officials in announcing the philanthropy’s $15 million investment to assist FAMU and 28 other HBCUs in setting up on-campus COVID-19 testing lab facilities.
The Gates grant allows the University to fully utilize $2.5 million in equipment and supplies donated by Thermo Fisher Scientific as part of The Just Project to provide testing for students, faculty and staff during the 2020-2021 school year.
“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Florida A&M University has been progressive in the manner we developed and implemented strategies to protect our students, faculty and staff,” Robinson said. “Thanks to the generosity and concerns of the Gates Foundation and Thermo Fisher regarding HBCUs, we can now build the COVID-19 testing infrastructure crucial to our goal to prevent the spread of the virus and minimize its impacts on our communities.”
Collected specimens will be tested in a 340-square-foot laboratory at the FAMU Center for Viticulture and Small Fruit Research on Mahan Drive. Tentative plans call for students, faculty and staff to get swabbed at the FAMU Activity Center, the old Club House, on South Adams Street. The target is to provide results in 24 to 48 hours.
The Gates Foundation’s investment supports up to 10 of the participating HBCUs with medical, veterinary, pharmacy, and agriculture schools to serve as diagnostic testing hubs by providing critical infrastructure, such as lab equipment, additional test kits, and training and laboratory capacity for rapid test processing.
“COVID-19 is exposing some hard truths about inequity in the United States, in particularly its impact on the Black community,” said Allan Golston, president U.S. Programs, the Gates Foundation. He cited trends such the reported 55 percent rise in COVID-19 infections among young adults aged 18 to 22 between August and September, and Blacks American being twice as likely to be infected with the virus as among the reasons for this HBCU initiative.
“This data suggests our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, which are more than 100 strong, who served more than a quarter of a million students across this country and are a critical resource of educational opportunity, face real challenges and opportunities in this pandemic,” Golston continued. “Safely reopening campuses and keeping them open requires a number of things, but it absolutely requires access to rapid active COVID-19 testing.”
The FAMU lab will serve as a hub providing testing for other Florida HBCUs, Bethune-Cookman University, Edward Waters College and Florida Memorial University.
In addition to FAMU, the first wave of schools to benefit from the foundation’s investment include Hampton University, Howard University, Meharry Medical College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Xavier University of Louisiana. Up to four more testing hubs will be added in the coming weeks, the foundation said.
The Gates grant will allow FAMU to hire individuals licensed and certified to work in clinical labs and to cover the operational costs of the lab. To get started, the University hopes to hire four or five lab staffers within the next few weeks.
“We can focus specifically on the internal needs of our students, faculty and staff as we move into the spring and fall semesters of 2021,” Robinson added.
Since April 25, FAMU’s Bragg Memorial Stadium has hosted a free COVID-19 testing site operated by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Florida National Guard, the Department of Health and other partners. The no-referral needed, walk-up site has served more than 56,000 people.