July 22, 2020

COVID-19 has exposed a number of nutritional vulnerabilities that are increasing risk to public health – from nutrition-related conditions that lead to poorer outcomes for those who contract the virus to food security hardships brought about by the pandemic’s economic turmoil. The Department of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health recently received funding from the NC TraCS Institute and Sanofi to support students and faculty exploring the effects of COVID-19 on food insecurity and other issues impacted by nutrition, such as immunity and chronic disease management.

Dr. Alice Ammerman

Dr. Alice Ammerman

The grant from NC TraCS will fund a study led by Alice Ammerman, DrPH, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of nutrition and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), to research policies and programs that make meals more accessible during the pandemic for K-12 children in North Carolina. Ammerman and her team at HDPD will be evaluating the implementation effectiveness of nutrition safety net programs throughout N.C.

“I am excited to be collaborating with one of my current and three of my former nutrition doctoral students on this TraCS project, which will help us understand how some of the creative approaches to feeding children during COVID-19 might actually be long-term solutions for reaching more families in need,” said Ammerman.

The gift from Sanofi will support student work with faculty in the Department of Nutrition who are currently investigating food insecurity, the effect of nutrition on immune function relevant to COVID-19, and the effect of COVID-19 on chronic disease management and outcomes, especially in the area of diabetes. Sanofi will fund one student to work with Ammerman on the Carolina Hunger Initiative’s NC Restaurants Feeding Kids Initiative, which partners with restaurants and other meal vendors to help school districts and community organizers feed kids statewide.

Dr. Melinda Beck

Dr. Melinda Beck

Dr. S. Raza Shaikh

Dr. S. Raza Shaikh

Nutrition can also play a role in immune response, as demonstrated in previous studies on the effects of influenza in obese adults. Sanofi’s gift will fund student participation in research on the effect of obesity on COVID-19 immunity through studies led by Melinda Beck, PhD, associate chair for academics and professor of nutrition, and S. Raza Shaikh, PhD, associate professor of nutrition. Beck’s research will test a group of obese adults for COVID-19 antibodies in order to compare them to the antibodies of lean adults. Shaikh’s research uses mice to further understand why obesity increases susceptibility to viral infection.

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer Davis

Dr. Beth Mayer-Davis

In addition, Sanofi’s gift will allow for student work on an ongoing initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) led by Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor and chair of nutrition. The study is exploring strategies for weight and blood sugar control in those with Type 1 diabetes (T1D). The Sanofi-funded student will assist with data collection from study participants to understand the impact of the pandemic on health, stress, resilience and food security. These issues can play a critical role in how people, especially youth, with T1D manage their diet, exercise and blood glucose.

“As the global pandemic has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that obesity and underlying chronic conditions linked to obesity, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are significant factors in the patients experiencing serious complications of COVID-19,” said Mayer-Davis. “Students with additional funding from Sanofi will be able to accelerate further studies of these effects, making contributions to highly urgent and necessary research to improve the outcomes for these patients.”


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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