Supporting Scientific Research – Monthly COVID-19 News Roundup

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.  

International Race for COVID-19 Breakthrough Amid Pressure to Lift Lockdown

Efforts to find an effective treatment for COVID-19 continue to dominate the research news cycle. Several countries have begun setting out plans to at least partially lift lockdown measures as a result of decreasing infection rates combined with economic and political pressure. With secondary ‘waves’ of infection already identified in multiple countries, lifting restrictions on movement poses the threat of coronavirus again spreading freely through populations. Therefore, the need for a scientific breakthrough is more urgent than ever. 

European Commission Continues to Award Horizon 2020 Funding for COVID-19 Projects

The European research community remains at the forefront of international efforts to combat the pandemic. After revising the current Horizon 2020 Work Programme to allocate additional funding for COVID-19 research and innovation projects, the European Commission has awarded €48.25 million to 18 projects and 151 research teams in the following areas so far: 

€20.3 million for projects to improve epidemiology and public health, including preparedness and response to outbreaks.  

€6.4 million for rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests.  

€15.8 million for new treatments adopting a dual approach. First, accelerating the development of new treatments currently in the pipeline (including therapeutic peptides, monoclonal antibodies and broad-spectrum antivirals), and second, screening and identifying molecules that could work against the virus, using advanced modelling and computing techniques. 

€5.7 million for development of a prophylactic vaccine and a therapeutic vaccine, which will be used for prevention and treatment respectively. 

EU Research Commissioner Suggests Horizon Europe Will Include Pandemic Mission 

In a European Parliament video conference of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Maryia Gabriel, told MEPs that the Commission is considering a new research partnership on ‘pandemic preparedness and societal resilience’ for Horizon Europe. 

Gabriel also confirmed that the five mission boards in charge of designing Horizon Europe’s ‘research moonshots’ have been asked to look at how those missions can contribute to the EU’s post-coronavirus economic recovery and help to prevent future pandemics. 

What We’ve Seen: Digitisation and Collaboration 

As nations and organisations find solutions to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, one common feature has been the movement from physical spaces, such as university campuses, to virtual spaces and a reliance on digital capabilities. The world has moved online! In the immediate term, universities across the globe have moved their operations online, from teaching classes to processing funding applications for ‘rapid response’ calls. 

Short-term solutions have shown what is possible and the higher education sector is making full use of available digital tools and platforms. In the longer term, the move to ‘virtual’ universities has highlighted possibilities for the future and the potential for higher education to embrace adaptation. In the UK, Imperial College London believes the assessment of 280 final-year medical students online is a world first. Dr Amir Sam, Imperial College London’s head of undergraduate medicine, commented: ‘To the best of our knowledge, this is the first digital ‘open book’ exam delivered remotely for final-year students.’ He went on to say, ‘If we show it has behaved in a similar way to a closed-book exam, then that is a new era for medical assessment.’ 

The burning question within the global academic community is whether the start of the next academic year will see a return to campuses. Universities are looking at their options within the context of having to live with the pandemic until a vaccine is found. As Terry Hartle, a senior vice president for the American Council on Education, a national trade group of universities, spelled out: ‘The coronavirus will determine when colleges and universities can reopen.’ 

Moving online has brought with it the costs of purchasing licences and equipment, and of course not all activity can transcend into virtual spaces. Lost revenue in the form of housing refunds etc will be exacerbated, as students balk at the prospect of another semester online, parents are reluctant to see their children go/return to university and the idea of a gap year becomes more appealing.  

Digital spaces have enabled the research community to collaborate and share their experiences of immediate and long-term challenges. High-profile conferences such as EARMA have had to be cancelled or postponed (EARMA is expected to take place in September 2020). However, events such as EARMA are also using technology to run, in part, online and provide access to conference speakers who can adapt presentations to take account of the pandemic.  

The global research community is coming together and joining forces in many other ways to aid national and global efforts in the fight against coronavirus and COVID-19. Researchers, developers and funders have been working together to develop a COVID-19 vaccine at speed. There has been international collaboration and coordination to develop tools to facilitate rapid data sharing and analysis, and to accelerate coronavirus research. Examples include a live database of funded research projects on COVID-19 developed by UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) and GloPID-R (Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness). The database aims to help funders and researchers identify gaps and collaborative opportunities – and coordinate a coherent global research response. 

Towards the end of April, the EC launched a European COVID-19 Data Platform to share data on COVID-19 at scale and speed. The initiative – one of the priority actions listed in the first ERAvsCorona Action Plan – is a joint effort by the Commission, the European Bioinformatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL-EBI), the Elixir infrastructure and the COMPARE project, working with EU Member States and other partners. 

Thousands of DNA sequences are expected to be uploaded, as well as tens of thousands of research articles. Another strategic collaboration seeking contributions is being led by FIND. Partners and laboratories worldwide with any performance data on commercially available in vitro diagnostic tests that detect nucleic acid, viral antigen or antibodies are being asked to contribute to a centralised resource centre to enable fast data sharing throughout the diagnostic community. (Details of a free online training course on COVID-19 diagnostics and testing are also available on the FIND website.) 

The world is hacking COVID-19! The EC Action Plan includes the pan-EU Hackathon as a priority action to mobilise European innovators and civil society. #EUvsVirus took place between 24 and 26 April 2020. The hackathon winners have been invited to a Matchathon on the new EIC COVID Platform (expected to take place 22-25 May 2020). 

Over 40,000 people participated in the German government’s #WirVsVirus (We Vs. Virus) hackathon in March 2020. Described as the ‘biggest hackathon in Germany’s history’, this digital model in the fight against COVID-19 continues to mobilise, inspire and exploit synergies.  

Collaboration and speeding up the innovation process are clearly key drivers in solving the problem of COVID-19. According to the Wellcome Trust, $8 billion of new funding is needed in the short term to accelerate the global fight against the pandemic. The European Union, World Health Organization (WHO) and partners are organising a worldwide online pledging event on 4 May, with the aim of raising €7.5 billion in initial funding to kick-start worldwide cooperation and boost the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines against COVID-19. If a vaccine is discovered, it is estimated that there will need to be a global financial commitment for an international escape route out of the pandemic.  

As new funding for coronavirus/COVID-19 research projects continues to be injected into the community, the expectation is that funder calls with fast turnarounds will dominate for the foreseeable future. 

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 these new opportunities and other funds affected by COVID-19 are detailed here. However, it is worth stressing that by no means have all opportunities dried up or been cancelled in the wake of COVID-19, and the RESEARCHconnect database is constantly being updated to provide the timeliest funding related news available, while our news service will bring the highlights directly to your inbox. 

Within Europe, the Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme continues to extend imminent deadlines to provide researchers with the additional time necessary to prepare and collaborate on their proposals, and researchers are advised to check RESEARCHconnect and the Funding and Tenders Portal website for the latest upcoming deadlines. 

At a national level, France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR – National Research Agency) launched a follow-up to its flash call originally launched in March 2020. This call, titled ‘RA-COVID-19′, targets urgent and rapid projects with an anticipated societal impact within 3 to 12 months of funding allocation. Projects may apply for up to €150,000 and all aspects of the pandemic and the means to control it are in scope. The deadline for this rolling call is 28 October 2020 (13:00 CET). 

In Germany, the ‘DFG Multidisciplinary Research into Epidemics and Pandemics in Response to the Outbreak of SARS-CoV-2’ call, originally launched in March, was extended in April to allow for international collaborations with Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg, thus emphasising the need for global collaboration in funding. The DFG has also drawn attention to the need to continue good scientific practice during the coronavirus pandemic, and particularly good quality assurance in the research process. 

Taking a more global look, the NIH has a dedicated webpage outlining the actions it is taking in light of COVID-19 and providing detailed information for applicants and recipients of NIH funding. The information relates to proposal submissions, guidance for projects involving human subjects and clinical trials, and peer review. This information can be accessed here, which also contains links to over 30 COVID-19 opportunities launched by the NIH. Applicants are advised that NIH Institutes and Centers are invariably using Notices of Special Interest (NOSI) for COVID-19 as an alternative to issuing or re-issuing programme announcements. Instead, the Notice indicates interest in a specific area and points to the Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) applicants can use to apply. 

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

What We’ve Seen: Successful Funding Applications 

Details were released this month of projects funded under the Horizon 2020 Advancing Knowledge for the Clinical and Public Health Response to the 2019-nCoV Epidemic, launched under the Health, Demographic Change and Wellbeing strand of H2020. This included the notable establishment of: 

Multidisciplinary European network for research, prevention and control of the COVID-19 Pandemic (I-MOVE-COVID-19), which consists of 25 partners from 11 countries. 

EXaSCale smArt pLatform Against paThogEns for Corona Virus (EXSCALATE4CoV), with 18 partners. 

Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems (HERos), with 11 partners. 

On a national level, on 10 April the ANR released details of 86 research projects that would immediately receive funding following a call launched on 6 March. The projects cover a range of issues related to the pandemic, each of which falls under at least one of the priorities identified by the WHO, namely: epidemiological and translational studies; physiopathogenesis of the illness; infection prevention and control measures in healthcare settings; and ethics, including the humanities and social sciences. 

April also saw the announcement of 21 UK projects that have successfully received a share of £14.1 million from the UKRI/NIHR Rapid Response Rolling Call, with projects focusing on therapy, vaccine, epidemiology and policy development research. The scheme is accepting applications until 11 May. 

A particularly noteworthy funding recipient of this UKRI/NIHR rolling call is RESEARCHconnect client Imperial College London, which received £1.8 million to develop a COVID-19 RNA vaccine towards human trials. When injected, this vaccine delivers the genetic instructions to muscle cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ surface protein, which should provoke an immune response and create immunity to the virus. 

In addition, the University of Oxford has been supported to begin testing a vaccine on human volunteers – the first such trial in Europe. This phase I clinical trial will test whether the vaccine, known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, can protect healthy people from the disease. It will also provide valuable information on safety aspects of the vaccine and its ability to generate good immune responses against the virus. 

Such exciting projects will be of interest to all in society, as people look for a vaccine and an easing of the restrictions on civil life that have been seen globally. 

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 that 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.