Supporting Scientific Research – COVID-19 News Roundup for June 2020

Welcome to our monthly roundup of news on coronavirus/COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the  Content Team will be closely tracking coronavirus news of relevance to our clients and producing this roundup in addition to our usual news output.  

European Commission Proposals for Research and Recovery Meet Mixed Reception 

On 27 May, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set out the Commission’s plans to kickstart Europe’s recovery from the effects of coronavirus and break the longstanding budgetary impasse with the European Parliament. With the planned launch of Horizon Europe on 1 January 2021 in the balance, the attention of the European research sector focused squarely on President von der Leyen as she presented the Commission’s proposal to Parliament. 

Addressing immediate need, the Commission has adjusted the current 2020 Work Programme to prioritise actions needed to ‘propel Europe’s recovery and resilience’. In order to make funds available as soon as possible, the Commission has also proposed to amend the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2014-2020 to make an additional €11.5 billion in funding available already in 2020. 

In the wake of the pandemic, the Commission is proposing a €9.4 billion stand-alone EU4Health programme to provide dedicated support for the health challenges ahead. The aim of this programme will be to help ensure that the EU is equipped with the critical capacities to react to future health crises rapidly and with the necessary scale. The programme will also create a comprehensive framework for EU health crisis prevention, preparedness and response, complementing and reinforcing efforts at national level and regional support to healthcare systems under cohesion policy. 

The proposed budget for Horizon Europe has also been increased by €13.5 billion to a total of €94.4 billion, to fund ‘vital research in health, resilience and the green and digital transitions’. The Commission’s official communication states the budgetary increase will be used to scale up the research effort for challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the extension of clinical trials, innovative protective measures, virology, vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, and the translation of research findings into public health policy measures. It is also proposed to scale up resources for research and innovation in climate-related domains. This will strengthen support for the competitiveness of EU industry in related economic sectors and promote a recovery consistent with the goals of the European Green Deal. 

Initial reaction from the research sector has been that of disappointment. The European University Association (EUA) issued a statement saying the Commission’s proposal would fail to provide urgently needed investment in education and R&I. While acknowledging the budgetary increase for Horizon Europe, the EUA described the proposal as falling ‘short of expectations and more importantly, [falling] short of societies’ needs’. 

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) described the new proposal as ‘a step in the right direction’, acknowledging the efforts of Commissioner Mariya Gabriel to push research and innovation back up the agenda. However, it was noted that the revised budget is ‘a very long way’ from the €160 billion LERU has called for and does not match the €120 billion proposed by the European Parliament. 

Within Parliament, reaction from the two Horizon Europe co-rapporteurs was mixed. German MEP Christian Ehler described the Commission’s proposal as ‘confusing’, saying: ‘Not having a significant increase of the European research budget is not just disappointing, it is almost suicidal – and doesn’t give any credibility for their plans on recovery.’ 

Romanian MEP Dan Nica struck a more measured tone, saying the Commission had taken ‘a step in the good direction’, but described the proposed amount as ‘still far’ from the amount that the European Parliament is looking for. He also cautioned that the Commission had so far failed to provide clarity on the €13.5 billion top-up for Horizon Europe, saying: ‘We still lack the details of where this money will go inside the programme.’ 

Research – the ‘world’s best exit strategy’ under threat? 

Universities around the world are facing a huge hole in their finances caused by COVID-19. Speaking at a recent Universities UK International (UUKi) event, University of Exeter vice chancellor Steve Smith commented that higher education institutions are ‘looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss’. 

Universities’ core income streams have been seriously impacted by the pandemic. Factors such as decisions by students to defer enrolment, restrictions on mobility, disappearance of commercial income from student accommodation, financial restructuring by industrial partners – and the predicted global economic recession – may make it difficult for some universities to survive in their current form. According to a recent Sutton Trust report, 30% of students in the UK believe that they are less able to afford study because of the pandemic, with those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds more likely to have such financial concerns. Disparities in the effects of the pandemic are another cause of concern.  

Requests for government support and talks within the academic community of possible mergers – to plug financial shortfalls and survive in some form – are playing a part in future-proofing. May saw the UK Government announce a package of ‘stabilisation’ measures rather than the requested bailout. These measures are seen as failing to safeguard universities and support a post-virus recovery. In Germany, the funder DFG announced a €175 million rescue package aimed initially at projects for which funding ended or will end between 1 April 2020 and 30 June 2021 and for which work could not continue because of coronavirus. 

The implications for teaching and research are going to be difficult to overcome, both in the short and long term. Financial challenges are set within the context of the research effort taking place across the world, with universities at the heart of the global effort to beat the pandemic and tackle any future outbreaks. A global call for governments to come together and plug the gap in funding COVID-19 research and development continues.   

Uncertain times and tough choices are ahead but some see this time as also presenting an opportunity to think about improvements and accelerate change within the post-pandemic recovery phase. One significant change for universities globally has been the transition to online learning. This has enabled teaching to continue and for students to have access to internal support. It also plays a part in universities’ contingency planning for the start of the upcoming academic year. However, online learning is not new and there are institutions with many years of experience. These institutions may become attractive alternative providers if traditional university campuses remain closed for the foreseeable future.   

Virtual opportunities are being considered in a broader sense as part of sustainable financial strategies. Ahmed Atia, Head of Department of Advisory and Research at the Faculty of Medical Technology of the University of Tripoli in Libya, highlighted how African universities could look at launching virtual conferences, workshops and exhibitions, online consultancies for businesses and educational TV channels etc. Increasing online presence may provide a potential revenue stream away from traditional sources for universities not already exploiting virtual possibilities. 

Continued Collaboration – ‘Accelerating research through data sharing’  

Research and scientific efforts are vital to beating COVID-19. Collating and sharing global expertise and effort has continued during May.  

In France, the Institut Français de Bioinformatique IFB (ELIXIR France) is providing expertise and computing facilities, including national and regional servers, for teams involved in the fight against COVID-19. Other ELIXIR services include ELIXIR Germany, which provides priority access for projects relating to COVID-19.  

The World Pandemic Research Network Directory, initiated by the Paris Institute for Advanced Study, prioritises the human and social sciences impacts of COVID-19. It includes projects by universities from around the world and can be used to form future collaborations.  

The EC COVID-19 Data Platform now includes over 70,000 publications within the ‘Literature’ dataset. The platform’s other datasets are Sequences, Expression Data, Proteins, Structures and a repository of Related Resources. The John Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker is one such resource. The tracker seeks to advance the understanding of the virus, inform the public and brief policymakers. Trackers have been the focus of attention as the world tries to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The King’s College London mobile app, developed by health science company ZOE Global Ltd, a spin-out of King’s, has been downloaded more than 3 million times in the UK. The observational study is also taking place in the United States and its ambition is to use the app with more than 10 million volunteers. King’s is encouraging researchers of other countries to obtain the required approvals from Apple and Google to make the app available in their territories. The study commenced 23 March 2020 and will run until 23 March 2022. 

Developed by a public/private partnership led by Inria on a non-profit basis, France’s ‘StopCovid’ app is scheduled for roll-out in early June, subject to government approval. 

May also saw the continuation of virtual hackathons to mobilise collaborators from across sectors and the world, to work together to develop solutions to COVID-19. An ELIXIR Bio Hackathon will take place in November 2020 for both ELIXIR and non-ELIXIR participants. MIT Solve is seeking tech innovations that can slow and track the spread of an emerging disease outbreak. The challenge is open to individuals, teams and organisations across the globe. Substantial cash prizes are on offer to successful solutions.  

What We’ve Seen: New Calls and Extended Deadlines  

Unsurprisingly, the funding landscape has been significantly affected by the continued fallout of COVID-19. While a variety of national and international calls – both rapid and long term – have been launched over the last month, a number of open or scheduled funding opportunities have been delayed or cancelled. 

Some of the most significant of the new calls directly related to COVID-19 are included here. This is just a snapshot, and the RESEARCHconnect database is constantly being updated to provide timely funding news focusing on, affected by – and indeed unrelated to – COVID-19. 

Within Europe, the Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme unlocked €122 for urgent research into COVID-19 on 19 May. The call complements earlier actions to develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines and will strengthen capacity to rapidly manufacture and deploy readily available solutions. It will do this while improving understanding of the behavioural and socioeconomic impacts of the epidemic. In line with efforts to ensure research is both timely and accessible, the call’s five topics have an imminent deadline of 11 June 2020. Furthermore, the Commission will include rapid data-sharing clauses in grant agreements from this call to ensure that findings and outcomes can be deployed immediately. 

At a national level, and in an example of how multiple disciplines are mobilising to reduce the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Soziales (BMAS – German Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs) launched a call in May to support research projects that will develop the scientific basis for future policy decisions in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Issues in scope include the impact of the virus on social security; employment and working conditions; civic participation and social cohesion; and the future of the welfare state and the social market economy. Once again, the turnover of this call is rapid, with a deadline falling on 18 June 2020 and projects expected to commence in July/August 2020. 

Another interesting focus can be seen in the UK with the launch of the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Global Effort on COVID-19 (GECO) Health Research funding programme. This call specifically focuses on understanding the pandemic and mitigating its health impacts in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), with a focus on epidemiology, clinical management, infection control and health system responses. This call has three deadlines in June, August and September 2020, and funding will be provided for up to 18 months. 

This NIHR fund highlights the need for solutions to problems that extend beyond national borders to the global and regional levels, which in turn can inspire increased collaboration. A significant example of this can be observed with the 22 May launch of the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund, led by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) but supported by funding agencies in the UK, Sweden and Canada. This $4.75 million scheme offers funding for projects that contribute to the African regional and continental response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on research and scientific engagement, including actions to combat the spread of misinformation. 

At the global level, Pfizer this month unlocked funding within its Global Medical Grants programme to support research that increases knowledge of COVID-19 epidemiology, infection, pathophysiology and potential prevention measures. Projects supported by this fund will focus on understanding the impact of COVID-19 on communities and levels of herd immunity, as well as on a postmortem analysis of those with known or suspected COVID-19. Grants will range from $50,000 to $250,000, although Pfizer will consider larger grants depending on the size and scope of the programme. 

Taking a brief look at how countries are displaying increased flexibility in light of the impacts of COVID-19, on 12 May France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR – National Research Agency) issued an announcement stating that projects will be extended for a further six months. Aside from a small number of exceptions, all projects currently being funded that are within the framework of the ANR Action Plan are covered, and this measure will be implemented automatically. 

Meanwhile in the UK, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced that imminent calls and competitions overseen by the organisation and all its councils would be extended to give applicants more time to submit their applications. The organisation also announced increased flexibility to the current policy for responsive mode grants and fellowships. Whereas the previous policy allowed a start date to be delayed for up to three months of the announced start date, this is now being extended to six months. 

Funding opportunities are being updated and closed at very short notice, so it is worth checking RESEARCHconnect and funders’ websites regularly for the very latest information. 

What We’ve Seen: Successful Funding Applications 

Following the many funds launched in recent months to tackle COVID-19, many of which were rapid response calls with a particularly short time between the application deadline and the project start date, more examples of successfully funded projects are available on a daily basis. 

At the European level, on 12 May the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) announced that it had provisionally selected eight projects for funding from its fast-track call for proposals on coronavirus diagnostics and treatments. The diagnostics projects aim to develop devices that can be used anywhere and will deliver speedy results (between 14 and 40 minutes), while the treatment projects primarily focus on the COVID-19 outbreak but also include efforts to prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks. The projects involve a total of 94 organisations, including universities, research organisations, companies and public bodies. 

At the national level, the French late stage clinical biotechnology company Abivax announced on 15 May that it had received €36 million from the Government-run investment bank Bpifrance. The funding will support the trial of its COVID-19 drug ABX464 in high-risk patients and will also cover manufacturing scale up and additional clinical and other development costs. This in turn will pave the way for a large-scale patient study of the drug and will allow high-risk patients who are not in hospital to participate in the trial. 

The German Government announced on 20 May that 34 projects would receive a share of €1.5 million following the March 2020 #WirVsVirus hackathon. The funding will help to develop prototypes across a range of projects, including those that focus on supply, production support, culture and community life, or which target group-specific information. Specific examples include the ‘Print4Life’ project, which supports medical institutions to utilise innovative manufacturing processes such as 3D printers if the required items are not available, and the ‘digital stage’ programme, which enables artists to use digital conference technology for rehearsals, lessons and performances without having to become experts in event technology.

Elsewhere, the Irish Research Council recently announced details of 26 projects that will receive a share of its €5 million COVID-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation Programme. These projects address short, medium and long-term aspects of COVID-19, and will focus on the development of medical countermeasures, health service readiness, and social and political countermeasures to COVID-19. 

Further successful projects were announced in Spain where, by 16 May, 127 projects had received a share of funding from the €24 million COVID-19 Fund managed by the Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII) as part of an urgent aid programme to generate knowledge about the infection. In Switzerland, 36 projects were funded from a pool of 10 million francs across the disciplines of biomedicine, the STEM sciences, and social sciences and humanities. 

With the many examples of positive results already being achieved, the research sector is continuing to demonstrate its ability to respond to rapid change and deploy novel ways of working to ensure results are delivered as successfully as possible. 

RESEARCHconnect Coverage

RESEARCHconnect will be offering support via ongoing coverage of changes to funding and policy during the pandemic, helping the research community as it adapts to its new working environment and helping it keep pace with current and future funding support/strategies. We will also keep you informed of other events overshadowed by the pandemic but which will still have a huge impact on the funding landscape scheduled for this year, such as an agreement on the EU Long-Term Budget, the planned launch of Horizon Europe and the resolution of Brexit negotiations. 

To find out more about how RESEARCHconnect can keep you in the know, and subscription fees, contact us today.