Baric Lab: COVID-19 Research


A material difference

UNC-Chapel Hill team supports the quick transfer of research materials to rapidly advance COVID-19 drug testing

Ralph Baric, photo credit : Bloomberg photos, Christopher Jarune

Why Innnovators Care

The transfer of materials needed for drug and testing development is a complex process. To get the materials needed to the Baric lab, The Office of Technology Commercialization worked to get a materials transfer in place. 

As the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease in 2019) pandemic continues to unfold, faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are on the front lines combatting the fast-moving virus. But with research and discovery happening at a rapid pace, how can these researchers and scientists share critical research materials fast enough to develop and test drug therapies for the virus as quickly as possible?


Material transfer agreements, or MTAs, play a significant role in furthering research across universities and industries. These agreements are designed to govern the transfer of tangible research materials between universities when the recipient intends to use it for their own research purposes. Although most of the general public may not be aware of MTAs, the agreements and the teams that execute them are essential for making scientific progress possible.


At the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization, Licensing Manager Carmen Melvin and Licensing Fellow Nate Whitman spearhead efforts related to make sure MTAs are processed quickly so that important research can keep pace with scientific needs.


“The main goal of MTAs is to help facilitate the transfer of materials between institutions, academic researchers, and industry,” says Melvin. “These agreements are critical to getting the materials out there to further research for the greater good.”


Whitman works closely with  professor Ralph Baric’s lab at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor with the Department of Epidemiology, and a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Baric is a leading expert in coronaviruses and emerging infections.


Just last year, there were seven MTA requests associated with Baric’s lab. In 2020, there have already been 15 MTAs initiated with most related to COVID-19. While some agreements have been for UNC-Chapel Hill to receive the virus, many have been for shipping out models that are used to study the virus, which is important since there is a shortage of certain models needed to study COVID-19.


“Pharmaceutical companies eager to develop the right drugs to combat the virus want to work with Ralph Baric and his lab,” says Whitman. “Researchers and scientists are benefiting from his research. Pharma companies that have drugs in clinical trials to treat other viruses are reaching out because they want to test them against this new coronavirus as well.”


“These agreements are critical to getting the materials out there to further research for the greater good.”

Carmen Melvin
Carmen Melvin, licensing manager, UNC Office of Technology Commercialization

For every MTA initiated, Melvin and Whitman work hard to keep the process moving. While many academic institutions require the use of a specialized agreement, which can slow down the process, Melvin and Whitman use a universal agreement as much as possible to streamline the process.

And given the urgency associated with COVID-19 within the community and around the globe, it’s essential to expedite MTA requests.

“Everyone is responding quickly and most often, acting within 24 hours.  “We are trying to get MTAs executed as soon as possible due to the urgency around the virus.” says Whitman.

With UNC playing such a significant role in combatting COVID-19, the University has an emergency agreement in place to obtain the virus from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“Our Emergency Use Simple Letter Agreement with the CDC allows the recipient to further transfer the material as long as it will be used in COVID-19 related research,” says Whitman. “This is vital as it allows our research to move forward more rapidly to other researchers without getting hemmed up in a legal process.”

Each year, Melvin and Whitman typically field more than 600 agreements. Most often, around 70 percent of those agreements are between universities with the other 30 percent between university and industry. Their office supports requests for materials going out from UNC-Chapel Hill as well as those coming into the University.

“At UNC, we don’t require MTAs for a lot of outgoing materials we’re sending to other academic labs. The notion is to enable the transfer of research materials with less negotiation and without impeding research,” says Melvin. “We want to make it easy for the research to move forward. If we don’t have to put a signed agreement in place for every single transfer, we don’t.”

As each day brings additional MTA requests and challenges, both Melvin and Whitman continue to play their part in fulfilling the University’s mission to help solve the world’s greatest problems… one MTA at a time.


“Our Emergency Use Simple Letter Agreement with the CDC allows the recipient to further transfer the material as long as it will be used in COVID-19 related research,”

Nathan Whitman
Nathan Whitman, licensing fellow, UNC Office of Technology Commercialization
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