LITTLE ROCK, ARK. (July 8, 2024) — Arkansas Children's Research Institute (ACRI) has received $3.3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to run a five-year study that will clarify which viral and host factors lead to severe disease among children infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Joshua Kennedy, M.D. headshot.The research will improve health outcomes of children worldwide. Josh Kennedy, MD, principal investigator, and Peter Mourani, MD, co-investigator and president of ACRI, will lead this study that will identify common features in children with multiple respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

Kennedy, an associate professor of Allergy and Immunology in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine, treats patients with asthma and allergies at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH).

Through deep sequencing of host and viral RNA obtained from respiratory specimens, the researchers aim to uncover an immunologic fingerprint for SARS-CoV-2 that can be used to identify it as the infecting virus in symptomatic children who have multiple viruses identified by clinical testing at the time of illness. In the future, this profile could be added to current clinical tests to guide treatment. The study will also identify patient characteristics, viral features and host immune responses that predispose a child to more severe disease.

“The clinical implications of co-detection of viruses in children are still not fully understood,” Kennedy said. “With new treatments emerging, it can be difficult to know whether a positive test actually identifies a new or old infection. We aim to create a much clearer picture with our study, which we believe will help inform future treatment strategies.”

Even years after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians still struggle to identify the dominant virus causing an immune response in children with respiratory illness when their lab results show multiple viruses. This lengthens recovery times and leads to care patients may not need.

Kennedy’s research has been moving discovery from the bench to the bedside for almost a decade. He received the Marion B. Lyon Young Investigator Award at Arkansas Children’s in 2016. That award annually promotes new, innovative pediatric research and has launched careers for young researchers for more than two decades. The program is one of the first award opportunities at Arkansas Children’s for new scientists to gain funding for their projects.

With funding from the NIH NIGMS and the ACRI Center of Biologic Research Excellence (COBRE) (PI: Alan Tackett), Kennedy’s lab sequenced over 40% of the publicly available SARS-CoV-2 variants from Arkansas.

Peter Mourani, M.D. headshot.Mourani leads a team that has identified one of the earliest host-microbe classifiers that distinguish lower respiratory tract infections among children in intensive care requiring mechanical ventilator support. Kennedy will join Mourani and their colleagues from California and Colorado to perform this breakthrough study that will not only enhance the understanding of the viruses and their infection in children but also pave the way for future clinical trials evaluating treatment options based on the immunologic fingerprints identified.

“This NIH support empowers us to delve deeper into the complexities of respiratory viral infection and coinfections that can make children seriously ill,” Mourani said. “Through our discoveries, we can unlock the secrets of the immune response to these viruses and develop targeted interventions to improve outcomes for children worldwide. Because of this work, children will reach their healthier tomorrow faster and with fewer complications as they battle viral respiratory infections.”

Arkansas Children's is
the only health care system in the state solely dedicated to caring for Arkansas' nearly 700,000 children. The private, non-profit organization includes two pediatric hospitals, a pediatric research institute and USDA nutrition center, a philanthropic foundation, a nursery alliance, statewide clinics, and many education and outreach programs — all focused on fulfilling a promise to define and deliver unprecedented child health. Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) is a 336-bed, Magnet-recognized facility in Little Rock operating the state’s only Level I pediatric trauma center; the state's only burn center; the state's only Level IV neonatal intensive care unit; the state's only pediatric intensive care unit; the state’s only pediatric surgery program with Level 1 verification from the American College of Surgeons (ACS); and the state's only nationally recognized pediatric transport program. Arkansas Children’s is nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report in seven pediatric subspecialties (2023—2024): Cancer, Cardiology & Heart Surgery, Diabetes & Endocrinology, Nephrology, Orthopedics, Pulmonology & Lung Surgery and Urology. Arkansas Children’s Northwest (ACNW), the first and only pediatric hospital in the northwest Arkansas region, is a level IV pediatric trauma center. ACNW operates a 24-bed inpatient unit; a surgical unit with five operating rooms; outpatient clinics offering over 20 subspecialties; diagnostic services; imaging capabilities; occupational therapy services; and northwest Arkansas' only pediatric emergency department, equipped with 30 exam rooms. Generous philanthropic and volunteer engagement has sustained Arkansas Children's since it began as an orphanage in 1912, and today ensures the system can deliver on its promise of unprecedented child health. To learn more, visit

UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and eight institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute, Institute for Digital Health & Innovation and the Institute for Community Health Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,275 students, 890 medical residents and fellows, and five dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 12,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit  or Find us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube or Instagram. 

# # #