The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting universities and research institutes across the world. But the same institutions are also working very hard to find out how the disease can be stopped and its effects mitigated.
Follow this live blog for the latest updates on how the crisis is impacting research and innovation, and what governments, funders, companies, universities, associations and scientists are doing to stop or cope with the pandemic.
You can read the full archive of this blog here.
The Danish government ordered up to 15 million mink to be culled after evidence that mutated forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have spread from farmed animals to humans.
The variants coming from mink have been shown to have mutations affecting the spike protein through which the virus infects humans. This is the protein on SARS-CoV-2 that is targeted by most of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development, and Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen said there are concerns it could undermine the effectiveness of vaccines if it spreads further in humans.
In a risk assessment, the Danish infectious diseases control agency, Statens Serum Institut, found that the mink-derived virus exhibited decreased susceptibility to neutralising antibodies from the blood of several people who had recovered from COVID-19 infection. In addition, a large virus reservoir in mink increases the chances that further mutations will arise, and that there will be more transmission of these variants to humans.
Since the beginning of August 2020, 168 mink farms have been infected in North Jutland - all with the SARS-CoV-2 mink variant. In parallel, there is an increasing incidence of the mink variant among citizens in the region, with approximately half of infections due to the SARS-CoV-2 mink variant.
Denmark is the biggest producer of mink fur in the world, selling around 17 million pelts per annum.
The European region has seen a 22 per cent increase in new cases of COVID-19 and a 43 per cent increase in deaths in the past seven days compared with the previous week, according to the latest data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
At a global level, Europe reported half of new cases, with over 1.7 million positive tests. There were 17,000 deaths.
France, Italy, and the UK reported the highest numbers of new cases, although Andorra, the Czech Republic and Belgium reported the highest per population incidence. France accounted for the third highest number of new cases globally, with over 275,000 positive tests reported in the past week (4,200 cases per million population). That is an increase of 27 per cent from the previous week.
New cases in Belgium fell by 21 per cent from last week to 82,500, while those in Italy rose by 72 per cent from last week to 175,000 new cases.
Despite the fall seen in Belgium, it still has one of the world’s highest incidences of the infection, with 7,000 new cases per million population. Italy’s incidence is lower at 2,800 cases per million.
In Switzerland, the number of new cases grew considerably in October, rising from fewer than 2,500 per week reported from mid-April through to the end of September - and fewer than a hundred cases reported in some weeks - to 50,000 new cases in the past week. Switzerland has the fifth-highest incidence of new cases in the region, at 5,800 cases per million population.
While weekly testing rates have increased in Switzerland, test positivity rates have also increased from 15 per cent to 22.5 per cent, as of 25 October.
In the past week, over 3.3 million new cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported globally. As of 1 November, nearly 46 million cases and 1.2 million deaths have been reported to WHO.
COVID-19 has created a sense of uncertainty about research funding, according to a survey of more than 25,000 scientists in 152 countries, with 47 per cent of respondents saying less funding will be available in the future as a result of COVID-19, signalling a potentially lasting effect.
"The impact of COVID-19 is manifesting itself across the funding landscape. While it is critical that collectively, we do everything we can right now to combat the virus, we must also recognise that diverting or the 'covidisation' of funding away from other fields is not a sustainable solution,” said Kamila Markram, CEO and co-founder of the open access academic publisher Frontiers, which carried out the survey. “The environment, for example, is an area we simply cannot afford to neglect.”
The survey found researchers are divided over their perceptions of government responses to the pandemic. Those that showed a significantly higher level of dissatisfaction with policy makers' use of scientific advice during the pandemic include the US, Brazil, Chile and the UK, while those in New Zealand, China, and Greece were the most satisfied.
"While we do not know what advice was given and if it was used, this data suggests more comfort in those countries that are coping well, those who took early lockdown decisions, have had similar previous experience, for example with SARS, and who recognised science as key to pandemic management decision making,” said Peter Gluckman, chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice.
The survey to assess the initial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on scientists was conducted by Frontiers between May and June.
“Scientists are under extraordinary pressure to deliver answers and a lack of precedent and preparation, combined with severe political and social pressures, has made this an incredibly challenging time for them,” said Markram. “Along with the disruption faced by most of the world's population - lockdown, remote working, isolation and anxiety - many researchers have felt an added pressure to understand, cure and mitigate the virus."
The survey shows scientific research has been able to continue for the large part, despite the disruption of COVID-19. When asked what they had been working on during the pandemic, 74 per cent of respondents said writing papers, 57 per cent continued with their research, and 42 per cent did virtual teaching.
The head of the WHO Tedros Ghebreyesus is in quarantine after coming into contact with someone with a confirmed COVID-19 infection.
“I have been identified as a contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. I am well and without symptoms, but will self-quarantine in the coming days, in line with WHO protocols,” Ghebreyesus said in his media briefing on Monday.
One of the drugs identified by the EU-funded supercomputing consortium Exscalate4CoV as having potential to treat COVID-19 infections, has now received approval for a 450 patient trial in Italy.
Raloxifene, approved for the treatment of the bone thinning disorder osteoporosis, was found to have antiviral properties. It will be tested in patients who have mild COVID-19 symptoms.
Exscalate4CoV screened 400,000 molecules in silico, selecting 7,000 for testing in the laboratory. The work was funded by a €3 million EU Horizon 2020 grant. A patent on the use of raloxifene for the treatment of people infected by COVID-19 was filed on 6 May 2020 by the Italian pharma company Dompé farmaceutici, the Fraunhofer Institute and Leuven University. They say the aim is to promote universal access to therapies that may be developed by Exscalate4CoV.
Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have committed to make 200 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine available through the COVAX vaccines distribution mechanism set up by the World Health Organisation, if the vaccine is approved.
COVAX was set up to ensure rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. As of mid-October, 92 richer countries, including the EU27, have signed up to pay for vaccines procured through COVAX, for their own populations, and to make donations to 92 lower income countries. The mechanism is being overseen and co-led by GAVI, the global vaccines alliance, and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
COVAX aims to procure, equitably allocate and deliver two billion doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021. Seth Berkley, GAVI CEO said, “Gavi is seeking to secure doses of the most promising vaccine candidates – so that the 184 participants involved in the COVAX Facility can make sure their most at-risk groups, such as healthcare workers, have rapid access to doses of a safe and effective vaccine. That is the world’s best chance to end the acute stage of this pandemic, and we encourage other vaccine manufacturers to work with us towards that shared global goal.”
As of 6 October, COVAX had received pledges of $1.7 billion to procure COVID-19 vaccines for donating to poorer countries.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published its Research at Risk report, warning the hit to charity fundraising from COVID-19 could mean up to £7.8 billion less for medical research in the UK between now and 2027.
Medical research charities that rely on events and high street shops for much of their funding have seen a 40 per cent fall in income as a result of the pandemic.
IPPR modelling predicts that lost charity income could mean, in a worst-case scenario, that medical research charities invest £4.1 billion less in health R&D between now and 2027. That is predicted to have a knock-on effect on private investment in collaborative research, which could fall by as much as £1.3 billion.
An additional fall in private investment, due to adverse economic conditions, of £2.5 billion, puts £7.8 billion of medical research investment is at risk. IPPR says the government should introduce a new, three year life sciences charity fund, equal to the shortfall in medical charity income caused by Covid-19 and lasting for three years. Charities should be free to use this fund as needed to maintain their R&D portfolios.
This matches an earlier call by Aisling Burnand chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, a body representing160 charities that between them put £1.9 billion into R&D in 2019. “Looking at the years ahead, not only will there be a drastic shortfall in charity funded research, but the knock on impact on levels of private R&D investment will be sizable,” Burnand said. “The IPPR Research at Risk report gives a strong economic rationale for the proposed Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund.”
The world needs to change its mindset on health, moving away from thinking only about individual clinical outcomes, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told the World Health summit in a speech on Sunday. “In today's world, we need to look after our health by looking after our planet, our wellbeing and our sustainable development,” von der Leyen said.
She was speaking as the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip. “The dramatic spikes in recent weeks across the world and especially here in Europe reflect a picture that is getting worse by the day,” said von der Leyen. “We are back to March and April levels and in many cases already far beyond it.”
But while the virus is back stronger than ever, knowledge and experience of how to control it is also much better than before, she said. One case in point is the ability to coordinate across borders, with the EU having carried out research that forms the basis of common criteria and thresholds when deciding whether to introduce travel restrictions, and a single set of rules for testing and quarantining people.
Last week, the EU set up a gateway allowing national COVID-19 contract tracing apps to interoperate. Tracing apps from Germany, Ireland and Italy are now linked to this gateway, with the Czech Republic, Denmark, Latvia, Spain and others, due to link up.
Building on these measures, von der Leyen pledged to put in place an EU-wide strategy to centrally collect data and evidence to assess the impact, effectiveness and any side effects, if and when any COVID-19 vaccines are approved. “Preparations for these activities must start now to be in place when COVID-19 vaccines reach the EU market,” she said.
In addition, the commission will be putting forward proposals to improve and strengthen the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Control, and to set up a new European agency for biomedical advanced research and development. “We will build the foundations of a stronger European health union in which 27 countries work together to detect, prepare and respond collectively,” said von der Leyen.
The European Universities Association (EUA) today released a report suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-lasting effect on universities which will need adequate support from public authorities to weather the crisis.
The report says universities suffered immediate losses due to the interruption of services, research contracts and international student recruitment. At the same, they now need to invest in better digital infrastructure for online learning and to adapt campuses to new health regulations.
“There are high levels of uncertainty and great concern in projections about future income from both public and private sources,” said Thomas Estermann, the EUA’s director of governance, funding and public policy development. “However, on a positive note, greater trust in universities due to their prominent role in crisis recovery is an asset – and we can capitalise on that.”