NIH Uses Urgent Award Vehicle for the First Time to Address Coronavirus Outbreak


The agency is tapping a never-before-used emergency award vehicle to acquire predictive models for how the COVID-19 will spread. 

As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, the National Institutes of Health are working to develop vaccines and early detection technologies to stem the outbreak. Funding opportunities for this research and prototype development are being channeled through two funding mechanisms.

Those efforts are being managed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, which, for the first time, has activated the NIH Urgent Award procurement vehicle. The funding vehicle, established in 2018, created an open grant offering that could be refined as needed to support research during emergencies, such as pandemics.

In February, NIAID issued a notice of special interest focused on the development of vaccines and the associated research, testing and production needed to support that effort.

While most of that call for proposals centered on medical research, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, or NIGMS, included a request for data analytics support, as well. The funding opportunity included proposals for platforms for “incorporation of data related to the 2019-nCoV into ongoing research efforts to develop predictive models for the spread of coronaviruses and related infectious agents.”

Proposals are being accepted through that opportunity through Feb. 6, 2021.

For the broader technology community, NIAID also expanded its 2020 omnibus broad agency announcement—a catch-all for research areas the agency plans to focus on for the year—to accept COVID-19-specific research proposals.

As with the Urgent Award opportunity, much of the BAA funding is focused on vaccines and other medical research—encompassed in research areas three and four. However, research area five is designated for development of advanced diagnostic tools, including for “emerging infectious diseases.”

“The objective of Research Area 005 is to advance the development of novel, rapid sample-to-answer candidate diagnostic products that will address biodefense and pandemic preparedness,” the solicitation states.

The original BAA gives a list of 12 families of viruses and specific instructions that any diagnostic technology proposed must address at least one of those agents. However, an amendment issued Feb. 4 added the novel strain of coronavirus—2019-nCoV—to the list.

NIAID’s funding includes up to $2 million for all awards within research area five, with no additional funding for COVID-19-specific research, as of yet. Funding will be awarded to prototypes able to meet four primary criteria:

  • Detect proposed pathogen/pathogen component directly from a relevant clinical sample—blood, urine, swab, cerebrospinal fluid, etc.—without a culture step.
  • Be designed for use in a point-of-care/low resource settings and provide a sample-to-answer result.
  • Require a maximum of 5 minutes of manual steps prior to loading the clinical sample on the platform.
  • Generate actionable diagnostic results within a maximum of 1 hour without any additional manual intervention.

The BAA also offers a list of deal-breakers that will lead directly to a proposal’s rejection. Those include:

  • Development of a diagnostic that does not improve upon the currently available diagnostics for the targeted agent.
  • Development of diagnostics that rely solely on the detection of host-response antibodies.
  • Basic research and discovery of new host-based diagnostic targets.
  • Development of diagnostics that will only be validated using non-pathogenic or surrogate organisms.

Another amendment, dated Feb. 27, extended the proposal due dates for all three research areas to April 9.