ECU professor teams up on COVID-19 vaccine research

A statewide COVID-19 research team that included an East Carolina University faculty member determined the vaccine alone may not be enough to end the pandemic.

Dr. Raymond Smith (Contributed photo)

Dr. Raymond Smith III, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, worked with a team of researchers who studied COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, population vaccine uptake and the spread of the virus.

The team’s research, which used a mathematical model simulation, appeared in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

“Results from this decision analytical study suggest that vaccinating most of the adult population and continued adherence to NPIs (nonpharmaceutical interventions) such as distancing and use of face masks will have the greatest effect on ending the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Smith said. “These findings highlight the need for well-resourced and coordinated efforts to achieve high vaccine coverage and continued adherence to NPIs before many pre-pandemic activities can be resumed.”

The research was published in June and was featured by more than 60 media outlets, including CNN.

Dr. Mehul Patel from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Maria Mayorga from N.C. State University led the team. Smith said he had worked with members of the team on previous research.

“Given the significant challenges presented by the pandemic and public health, I was excited to be invited to be a member of the team,” Smith said. “The team is very interdisciplinary consisting of experts from diverse fields — engineering, public health, epidemiology, emergency medicine, infectious disease, geography and data visualization — using their knowledge to model disease spread and intervention impacts for North Carolina. The study was important because it provided analytical insight to inform state and local level planning for the pandemic to reduce infections, hospitalizations and deaths.”

Smith said the team began the research amid many unknowns about the virus and emerging variants, the efficacy of vaccines developed, and the population’s willingness to be vaccinated. Later, limitation in vaccine supply and prioritization of distribution were considered.

Using a simulation based on North Carolina’s population of 10.5 million, the researchers found that infections, hospitalizations and deaths would increase if NPIs such as school closures, quarantines, social distancing and mask-wearing were lifted as vaccinations began.

As the number of people receiving vaccinations continues to grow — nationally almost 50% were considered fully vaccinated as of July 7, including 46% in North Carolina — many states are beginning to ease pandemic restrictions.

Smith, who has been at ECU for four years, said he had a variety of roles in the research, which included looking at hospital capacity, modeling and simulation, interpreting data and assisting in preparation of the final manuscript that was published.

“We were very pleased to have the article accepted in JAMA Network Open,” Smith said. “We selected JAMA Network Open due to its prominence and ability to quickly disseminate the findings.”

Smith said the research was designed to help in pandemic planning.

“We have engaged government, business, health care, education, religious, community organizations and leaders across the state to better understand their decision-making processes and response to the pandemic and how they might be better informed,” Smith said. “We have also engaged many local public health departments across the state to understand their community/population challenges in the pandemic and how this modeling work could better support their efforts, now and in the future. Lastly, we’re planning to retrospectively examine the question as to whether vaccine prioritization strategies and policies could be effectively used to reduce inequalities in COVID-19 burden for historically marginalized populations.”

Smith said he enjoyed being part of a team that produced such important research.

“It has been extremely rewarding to work with an incredibly talented team of researchers and experts,” he said. “As a researcher, I have learned and grown a lot from the experience.”

Funding for the research came from university grants, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.