Supporting Scientific Research – New Monthly COVID-19 News Round Up

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

The roundup will give you a flavour of the wide range of funders communicating their reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, be it ‘rapid response’ funding calls to communication from funders such as Leverhulme Trust reporting no changes to grant deadlines, for the immediate future.

Europe and UK Mobilise Against Coronavirus

The European Commission is leading the continent’s response to COVID-19 with a €37 billion Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative consisting of unused cohesion policy funds. By bringing forward planned expenditure and redirecting it to fighting coronavirus, Member States will be able to keep approximately €8 billion of unspent EU cohesion money instead of reimbursing the EU, in addition to a further €29 billion of co-financing from the EU budget.

The Commission has also mobilised up to €140 million to develop vaccines, new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems to prevent the spread of coronavirus:

17 projects involving 136 research teams have been selected to receive €47.5 million following a Horizon 2020 emergency call (SC1-PHE-CORONAVIRUS-2020) for expressions of interest for research projects to advance understanding of coronavirus, contribute to more efficient clinical management of patients infected with the virus, as well as public health preparedness and response.

The Innovative Medicines Initiative launched an emergency call (IMI2 Call 21) funded by up to €45 million from Horizon 2020, to be matched by the pharma industry.

The Commission has also offered CureVac, a highly innovative European vaccine developer, up to €80 million of support in the form of an EU guarantee of a European Investment Bank (EIB) loan. The company aims to launch clinical testing of a vaccine by June 2020.

Several EU-funded projects are already contributing to preparedness and response to the pandemic, such as the European Virus Archive – GLOBAL (EVAg), the PREPARE project and also the European Commission’s involvement in the Global research collaboration for infectious disease preparedness (GloPID-R) network.

In Britain, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is working with the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) via the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to deliver a £20 million rapid response call for coronavirus research proposals. The first six projects to be funded from this call were announced on 23 March and include a project to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Other projects include testing the viability of existing drugs to treat the virus. Research will run over an 18-month period and the UK will work with partners globally as part of the worldwide effort to understand coronavirus and address its spread.

A new COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions will enable clinicians and public health teams to rapidly investigate clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and the community, to understand how the virus is spread and implement appropriate infection control measures. The aim is to deliver large-scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the government.

The UK has also committed £50 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) in response to a global call for $2 billion to progress COVID-19 vaccines through to manufacture. This builds on the £50 million already given by the UK Government to CEPI to support its vaccine development work and is the largest single contribution to CEPI by any country.

CEPI has so far received over $430 million towards its $2 billion funding goal, initiating eight COVID-19 vaccine development projects with Curevac, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna, Novavax, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Oxford, the University of Queensland and a consortium led by Institut Pasteur to develop COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

Initial Impact on Research Funding

It’s hard to find an aspect of the research funding process that has not been affected by COVID-19 from changes to application deadlines to temporary assessment arrangements.

The extent of the impact on funders and their funding portfolios now and in the coming months is evident with the Dunhill Medical Trust concluding:

‘Owing to the evolving situation with regard to COVID-19 containment, we have taken the difficult decision not to open to new outline Research Project Grant applications as originally planned on 23rd March 2020. We have many new awards already in the pipeline which will not be able to start for some time, plus we believe that we have a duty to current award-holders, both researchers and staff in community-led organisations, to help them through this difficult time. We will be launching our new strategic plan in autumn 2020 and hope to be announcing the new deadlines and schemes at that point.’

Looking at one of the largest sources of funding in the sector, the European Commission announced in March that it would extend Horizon 2020 application deadlines to allow applicants extra time to prepare and finalise submissions. All Horizon 2020 calls with deadlines up to 15 April 2020 have therefore been extended, with the current exception of IMI2 Call 21: Development of Therapeutics and Diagnostics Combatting Coronavirus Infections. New deadlines for affected calls and topics will be published on the Funding and Tenders Portal over the coming weeks. In the meantime, applicants have been advised to ensure that effective communication links be established to enable remote collaborative work, with further restrictions on office access and team meetings anticipated.

Many funders, from national research agencies to membership organisations are including guidance on COVID-19 with regards to research funding for both existing recipients and new applicants (examples include UKRI, ANR, NWO, and Alzheimer’s Association).

But as we have seen during March, things change quickly and it is very important that awardees make contact with funders to find out their current position/guidance in relation to the impact of COVID-19. They may also find additional resources and sources of support, with funders doing what they can to support recipients/members. Dedicated sections on COVID-19 have started appearing on funders’ websites, which provide links out to additional sources of information and support. Funders with dedicated pages include the Wellcome Trust, BMBF, and the Michael J Fox Foundation – which has held webinars for the Parkinson’s community.

Mobility Concerns Put Higher Education in the Spotlight

A pause to REF 2021 in the UK is an example of the extent of funders’ contingency planning, to allow for/acknowledge universities’ priorities undergoing a big shift in recent weeks. Closing campuses to adhere to social distancing and keep staff and students safe; moving education, research, collaboration online; alternative assessments; dealing with requests to suspend studies and vacate student accommodation etc – and consideration of their own contingency planning in light of the unfolding risks to income streams. Risks to student enrolment are real, as students are forced to pause their education.

Indeed, this impact on mobility has been most notable in Europe’s programme to support student mobility, ERASMUS+. The programme produced a factsheet on 25 March outlining measures it was taking in light of COVID-19, including postponing ongoing deadlines (details of which are available here); enabling thousands of ongoing Erasmus projects to postpone their activities until spring; and enabling the deadline for all planned activities to be extended by 12 months.

At the heart of this phenomenon is the impact on students, and it is noteworthy that advice for students themselves varies from country to country. The Consulate General of France in London, for example, provides differing advice for French students in the UK depending on their situation, advising students coming to the end of their courses or at suspended institutions to return home if possible, while advising those at the start of their course to remain in the UK. On the other hand, Communications Director at the German Academic Exchange Service (Daad) Michael Harms put the situation facing students starkly, stating that currently ‘I wouldn’t try to get home to anywhere’.

The precariousness of this situation has placed the mental health of students under the microscope, with Vice-President of the European Students’ Union (ESU) Gohar Hovhannisyan warning it is not ‘common’ for universities to offer their students online mental health support, and going so far as to say that students have the ‘right to go home if they want to’. In response, Daad has promised its scholarship holders that it would financially support whatever decision they make, while the UK Government’s official guidelines for those remaining on university campuses provides links to both Every Mind Matters for adults, and Young Minds for young people, and these services will be more important than ever in the weeks and months ahead.

On 31 March, France’ s Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MESRI) announced that part of the €139 million student and campus life contribution (CVEC) would be available immediately to help address the urgent material needs of students, with a focus on: food needs; IT support to aid students in their studies; and financial aid for students who have lost work as a result of COVID-19. Support will be offered to students with disabilities or who have health problems, as well as international students where needed. An additional €10 million has also been released as emergency aid allocated by the Regional Centre for Regional and Work Schools (CROUS) for students who may require urgent additional financial assistance.

As for institutions themselves, lost tuition fees alone are expected to create a huge void in university incomes. However, contingencies include flexibilities and ideas mooted have included mitigating COVID-19 impact through, for example, delays to university start dates, or extended use of online facilities to enable remote studying for the first part of a degree course.

External providers are trying to do their bit to help the research community, with Coursera making its entire course catalogue available for a limited period to universities across the world, which have had to close because of COVID-19. Courses include coverage of COVID-19 and the involvement of the global research community in fighting the pandemic, including a free course from Imperial College London ‘Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19′.

Other Developments

King’s College London has launched a mobile phone app which tracks symptoms related to COVID-19, allowing anyone to self-report daily. The non-profit COVID Symptom Tracker was designed by doctors and scientists at King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals working in partnership with health science company ZOE.

Led by Professor Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s, researchers believe that the data from the study will reveal important information about the symptoms and progress of the COVID-19 infection in different people, and why some go on to develop more severe or fatal disease while others have only mild symptoms.

RESEARCHconnect and GRANTfinder will be offering support via ongoing coverage of changes to funding and policy due to coronavirus, helping the research community mitigate its impact by keeping pace with current and future funding support/strategies. We will also keep you informed of 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, 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.