Private philanthropic support is driving timely COVID-19 research by West Virginia University — along with partners at Marshall University and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources — that could ultimately save lives in the Mountain State.
The Virginia-based Foster Family Foundation provided $75,000 to support collaborative efforts to identify variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The funds — provided in conjunction with WVU’s fourth Day of Giving — are helping the research team leverage existing expertise, advance technical efforts and boost efficiency to sustain the project moving forward.
“We are so grateful for the generous support of the Foster Family Foundation,” said Laura Gibson, senior associate vice president of Research and Graduate Education, WVU Health Sciences. “These funds have enabled the laboratory team to move efficiently with their work focused on identification of variant forms of COVID-19. When something is moving and changing as rapidly as COVID-19, it is essential your science keep up to have the most positive impact. The Foster Family Foundation helped make that happen.”
The gift comes courtesy of Amanda Foster Spahr, one of three children of Betty and Wes Foster. The couple established the family’s namesake foundation in the mid-1990s and provides money for their children to devote to philanthropic endeavors each year.
Foster Spahr previously lived in the Philadelphia area, where she often used her funds to support the creative arts and social causes. She recently moved to Winfield, about 25 miles northwest of Charleston, and sought to put her money to use locally.
Her initial interest in supporting COVID-19 vaccination efforts led her to Jeff Schoenherr, associate vice president for medical and health sciences development at the WVU Foundation. He introduced her to Gibson, who highlighted the importance of the project.
“It hit me at the right time: We had just heard about the variants,” Foster Spahr said. “For me, it was kismet that they proposed this, and I knew how important it was. … What a privilege to be able to do something that’s potentially helpful.”
The research team — led by Peter Stoilov, Peter Perrotta and Ryan Percifield at WVU and Jim Denvir and Don Primerano at Marshall — is set to analyze hundreds of samples from across the state each week, utilizing an automated system and whole-genome sequencing.
Their surveillance will identify the SARS-CoV-2 variants driving the COVID-19 pandemic in West Virginia and detect new variants that arrive or emerge within the state, empowering public health officials to take appropriate efforts to control and contain the virus. Their work will also enhance scientific understanding of how COVID-19 variants evolve and may lead to the development of new therapeutics or vaccines.
Foster Spahr is eager to see her dollars benefit the state she now calls home. Although she had no prior connection or involvement with WVU, she enjoyed her experience partnering with the University and said she’s interested in supporting other projects that align with her interests and passions. She found it particularly rewarding to work with people who wanted to help her help others by identifying the best way to put her money to use.
Private support is integral to health sciences research at WVU. The Health Sciences Center’s Office of Philanthropy raised nearly $5 million in 2019-’20 to advance research aimed at improving health care in West Virginia and beyond.
“Great strides in research come from collaborations at the bench and with funders who take an active role in ensuring the future of medicine is secure,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences. “Private funding, particularly when paired with grant dollars, can make a positive impact on the scale and speed of a research endeavor.”
The gift was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University. The Foundation organizes WVU Day of Giving to help alumni and friends support the University’s greatest needs and opportunities. This year’s event, held on March 3, raised $11.9 million from over 5,000 donors, including the Foster Family Foundation’s contribution.