Learning from COVID-19: A catalyst for European R&D policy and practice?

09 Apr 2020 | News

The global pandemic is brutally exposing how reliant the EU – and the rest of the world – is on high quality research, collaboration and data sharing. These lessons must be applied in Horizon Europe  

MEP Christian Ehler, the Parliament's Horizon Europe rapporteur. Photo: European Commission

Despite – or maybe because of - the shock departure of Mauro Ferrari from his post as president of the European Research Council, there is optimism the COVID-19 crisis can inspire a new age of scientific cooperation and achievement – so long as key lessons are learned.

Among the criticisms levelled by Ferrari in the statement announcing his resignation, was a lack of coordination in the European Commission’s response to the pandemic.

The reality is quite the opposite, said Christian Ehler, MEP, rapporteur for the EU’s Horizon research programmes. As one case in point, European research ministers had earlier backed the commission’s new 10 point action plan for research and innovation responses to the crisis.

“In reality, we are relying on thirty years of investment in the European Research Area and throwing as many complications overboard as fast as possible,” Ehler told a Science|Business web conference on Wednesday. “We are opening up to unconventional channels as never before,” he said, citing scientific cooperation with China, the rapid reallocation of €250 million to back COVID-19 research from existing EU instruments and programmes, and the engagement of start-ups and the general public in the quest for solutions.

Similarly, Helga Nowotny, professor emerita at ETH Zurich and one of Ferrari’s predecessors as ERC president, sees the crisis as a major opportunity to reinvigorate the concept of the European Research Area (ERA) as a single market for research. As the pandemic illustrates, “We need an ERA in which this level of coordination can happen,” Nowotny said. This is not only in terms of providing a helicopter view of scientific activities taking place across Europe, but also finding synergies between the most promising initiatives.

The greatest field experiment of all time

For Otmar Wiestler, president of the Helmholtz Association, the response to COVID-19, “is a unique, profound, global field experiment that has never been done before.”

As such, policy makers would do well to heed its insights and lessons for the future.

Beyond the urgent short-term response, the key question will be to come up with “smart ways to deal [with the crisis] at the mid-term level,” Wiestler said. For European policy makers and researchers, these include designing and carrying out multi-layered investigations, analysing all of the data collected, and factoring these into a long-term prevention strategy. “Concerted efforts are coming,” he said, “but we will need a strategic plan for the next steps.”

The combination of short- and longer-term planning is equally vital for industry, said Isabelle Thizon-De Gaulle, vice president for European strategic initiatives and scientific relations at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi.  “The biggest urgency is a global push to get the evidence,” to show if any currently approved drugs can be repositioned to tackle the virus, she said. “We need to answer the critical medical questions.” In the current crisis, getting potential therapies to patients in intensive care, “is a key coordination challenge.”

Beyond that, a major issue will be to coordinate analyses of research taking place across Europe and elsewhere, both to deepen the understanding of the disease and its treatment, and to inform the design of future health care systems and policy. Thizon-De Gaulle suggested that existing scientific networks and partnerships, such as the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), have a vital role to play in this. “We should leverage existing connections and ask scientists for the necessary actions to be taken, as they have the answers,” she said.

Ehler agreed data coordination is a critical part of the response. “Our problem is infrastructure: we need a regime for data collection and analysis,” he said. That will both support individual clinical trials going forward and facilitate cooperation in clinical studies that are in progress at national, EU and international levels. 

Implications for Horizon Europe and beyond

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, it may look like a sideshow, but one of the most pressing questions hanging over Brussels is the impact of the pandemic on negotiations for the EU’s next multi-annual financial framework (MFF) and, by extension, Horizon Europe, the 2021 – 2027 research programme.

Contrary to some expectations, Ehler believes that agreeing the next EU budget will be the top priority for the German government when it takes on the presidency of the European Council at the beginning of July. Moreover, he feels the crisis may well provoke a change in mindset among member states, and a dawning realisation that “more money will be needed to fulfil our ambitions and obligations.”

This is not just the means to fight COVID, but also to address the economic fallout.  “A recession is coming, and innovation is critical to solving that. The wellbeing of the EU will depend on the amounts we invest now in R&D,” Ehler said.

Whatever its ultimate budget, Horizon Europe will certainly need to be more flexible than previous research programmes. While for Nowotny, the seven-year framework of EU research programmes is an advantage, she said, “We must not bind ourselves too much to the timescale”. The realities of climate change, loss of biodiversity and other mega trends mean the world will face more COVID-like crises in the years ahead. Given this, major R&D programmes like Horizon need to be able to adapt in real time to future needs.

Come what may, there is optimism the current crisis will result in positive change. Clinical trials have been designed and delivered at an unprecedented pace. The question of preparedness has entered the mainstream of policy debates. After falling out with experts, public trust is rapidly returning to science and evidence-based decision making.

Above all, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of international collaboration for the common good. As Ehler concluded, the crisis “might be a brutal cure, but it might also bring us back to multilateralism and cooperation.”

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