17 Sep 2020

LIVE BLOG: R&D response to COVID-19 pandemic

covid vaccine

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.

 

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced today it will invest an additional €45 million in its fast-track COVID-19 call. The funding make for better understanding the virus, supporting basic research, clinical studies, and ethical, legal and social issues related to the pandemic.

Research Minister Anja Karliczek said more research is needed to fully understand the virus and find effective therapies. It is also important to study the societal impacts of political decisions and social recommendations around pandemic, she said.

 

The Research Data Alliance has published recommendations for data sharing under COVID-19. The guidelines,  created by over 400 volunteer data experts, are in line with various statements on data sharing in heath emergencies by the EU, the OECD, Wellcome Trust, US NIH and the Gates Foundation. The publication covers eight research topics, providing best practice for policymakers and funding agencies.

 

Russian state-backed hacker groups have attempted to steal information from various organisations involved in the development of COVID-19 vaccines throughout 2020, according to a new report from the UK and Canada’s cybersecurity agencies. The hackers are using publicly available  malware to target government organisations, healthcare institutions and think-tanks in the UK, Canada and the US. The report suggests the attacks are likely to continue and advises organisations working on COVID-19 vaccines how to protect themselves against the attack.

 

English universities at risk of insolvency due to COVID-19 will be able to apply for government loans on condition they agree to restructure. To get loans, universities will have to reduce administrative costs, including cutting vice-chancellors’ pay, strengthen graduate outcomes, and improve the quality of their courses. The new scheme was announced following a report by the independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which warned 13 (unnamed) universities are facing insolvency. An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board is to be set up to provide input on individual applications before education minister Gavin Williamson decides whether to offer a loan.

 

The House of Lords EU committee has questioned the UK government’s decision not to join the proposed €9 billion EU4Health programme, conceived to increase resilience and cooperation between Europe’s healthcare systems post-pandemic. EU4health, which will fight cross-border health threats such as COVID-19, allows for the participation of countries outside the EU.  In a letter to health minister Edward Argar, the committee said. “We believe that continued collaboration in this field is critical, and have particular concerns regarding a loss of cooperation on clinical trials, a smaller population pool for health research on matters such as vaccines, and reduced leverage in procurement exercises for medical equipment such as PPE.” 

 

The lobby group, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) has hit back at EU ambitions to foster technological sovereignty and reduce reliance on imports of strategic goods such as drugs and medical devices, saying it involves giving up Europe’s comparative advantage in cutting edge, high value health interventions.

Europe will end up producing lower value products, possibly at a higher price than currently available, EFPIA claims. This follows on from the European Parliament stating its support for the European Commission’s objective of designing a new EU industrial strategy to make industry more resilient to global shocks, including the reintegration of supply chains inside the EU, and increasing EU production of drugs, pharmaceutical ingredients and medical devices.

EFPIA says this focus on manufacturing autonomy may sound like an appealing quick fix to issues highlighted in the COVID-19 crisis, but is likely to actually be very detrimental, because it fails to recognise that there are very clear reasons why some manufacturing does not take place in the EU, including the higher cost base.  In addition, a focus on manufacturing fails to acknowledge that manufacturing starts with research and development and that the R&D elements of the supply chain are where the most value is generated for an economy.

 

The world’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK, is cutting back on jobs and research in the face of an anticipated £300 million decline in fundraising over the next three years. The charity, which relies largely on income from a chain of high street shops and sponsored events, that were all closed or cancelled as a result of COVID-19 lockdown, expects a drop in income of £160 million this year alone. In the face of this, it is having to stop some research programmes, reduce the amount or scope of other activities, and is reducing its workforce by 500 roles, or around 24 per cent. Annual research spending will be cut by £150 million, to £250 million, within four to five years.

 

New Zealand research institute AgResearch announced today it received government funding of €143,298 for COVID-19 detection research and €171,958 for light disinfection technology that could kill viruses. The first project will analyse microRNA to detect COVID-19 within hours of infection, even in asymptomatic people. The test will take a year to develop The second research project will test different wavelengths of light to kill the coronavirus on surfaces.

 

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health programme has selected eleven start-ups which will receive funding to help overcome disruptions caused by COVID-19. The money is part of a €60 million crisis response initiative launched by EIT in May. The companies, based in nine different countries, are developing cancer, infectious diseases, wound and joint care, medical imaging and cardiovascular disease products. Each will receive up to €500,000. 

 

The European Commission has given its go ahead for a €80 million Slovak state aid scheme to support industry R&D projects and testing and production facilities for COVID-19 related products. The scheme, co-financed by the European Structural Fund, is open to companies of all sizes, excluding financial institutions. The aid will improve development and production of vaccines, medical equipment and products and protective equipment.

 

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