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.

 

In a policy brief, the OECD gives an overview of best practice in responding to the pandemic, highlighting the need for strong research and policy coordination within countries. The COVID-19 crisis has pushed governments to launch fast-tracked research proposals, and this runs the risk of duplicating effort or missing opportunities, resulting in slower progress and wasting money, the report says. OECD stresses the need for greater clarity and visibility of funding opportunities and notes that joining forces and sharing information at the national level also eases and supports international cooperation initiatives.

 

The UK government and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced £1.1 million in funding for three projects using space-enabled technologies and services to support the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In one, the space company Skyports will work with NHS Highland, which serves a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland, using drones to deliver medical supplies and samples. In another project, Stevenson Astrosat, based in Musselburgh, Scotland, is developing Isolation +, which uses advanced space data analytics, combined with relevant ground information, to identify ‘hidden’ vulnerable communities. This will allow voluntary organisations and local authorities to target support to those who are exposed to the impacts of Covid-19 through poverty and age.

An initial £2.6 million was made available and the first three projects have received a total of £1.1 million. The UK Space Agency and ESA are to fund further bids, with the call remaining open until 30 September 2020. 

 

Health Canada has approved a world-first phase III trial, attempting to boost the immune systems of cancer patients, to protect them against COVID-19. The trial, led by UK biotech Immodulon, is testing its IMM-101, which is designed to stimulate the natural arm of the immune system. It is hoped this could prevent severe COVID-19 infections. The nationwide trial is being funded with C$2.8 million (€1.8 million) from the Canadian Cancer Society and other backers.

 

Gilead launched an international call for proposals to study the impact of COVID-19 and test the safety of its antiviral drug remdesivir, which recently received conditional approval in Europe. Projects lasting up to 9 months should collect data on the impact of COVID-19 in vulnerable populations, such as people living with HIV and also study long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection. Projects can also focus on testing the safety and effectiveness of remdesivir. Awardees are eligible for grants up to $250,000. Application deadline: 3 August. For more funding opportunities, see our database of COVID-19 calls for proposals.

 

AI company Intellegens has received funding from Innovate UK to model COVID-19 data, with the aim of improving management of future pandemics. Combining data from different countries and applying a deep-learning algorithm, Intellegens will build an interactive tool to predict the progression of pandemics, as a decision support tool for policy makers, companies and healthcare providers. The AI tool will have a dashboard summarising geographic distribution, timing and patient characteristics. Users will be able to use the system to assess how particular policies might impact outcomes.

 

French biotech company Osivax has raised over €30M in a mixture of grants and equity to support the development of a universal coronavirus vaccine and to advance its flu vaccine. The European Innovation Council awarded the company a €2.5 million grant and invested €15 million in equity as part of a larger series B private round. In addition the French government investment bank Bpifrance awarded a €15.1 million grant to a consortium led by Osivax, to support its coronavirus vaccine programme. The Cochin Vaccine Evaluation Centre will conduct the phase I and phase IIa trials, and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) will run immune analyses on human samples.

 

US vaccine company Novavax announced it has been selected to participate in Operation Warp Speed, the US government programme to promote development of COVID-19 vaccines, and has been awarded $1.6 billion to complete late stage clinical development and deliver 100 million doses of its vaccine NVX CoV2373, as early as late 2020. A phase I/II clinical trial of NVX-CoV2373 in 130 healthy participants 18 to 59 years of age, which began in Australia in May, is being supported by up-to $388 million funding from the internationally-funded Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The preliminary immunogenicity and safety results from the Australian trial are expected at the end of July, and the Operation Warp Speed agreement will fund further clinical development, including a phase III clinical trial with up to 30,000 subjects beginning this autumn. The $1.6 billion investment supports the Novavax vaccine, “all the way through to manufacturing 100 million doses for the American people,” said US Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar.

 

The European Commission approved a total of €2 million in state aid for grants to fund clinical development of two drugs that are being repurposed to treat COVID-19. Vienna-based Apeptico will be awarded €840,000 for a clinical trial of its synthetic peptide drug Solnatide in treating severe lung dysfunction in COVID-19 patients, after it was approved for compassionate use in respiratory symptoms of the infection in April. Another biotech, Panoptes, is getting €1.2 million to conduct a trial of PP-001, which is in development for treating inflammatory eye diseases,  in the treatment of COVID-19.  The company says that in addition to anti-inflammatory effects, PP-001 acts as an antiviral.

 

The Irish government is investing €4.8 million in an interdisciplinary collaboration at Trinity College Dublin to investigate the immune response to COVID-19. The research will seek to understand why some people are more susceptible to COVID-19 infection than others, and develop, validate and deploy rapid antibody testing in Ireland, to identify previous infections in healthcare workers and in the general community. This will provide key data on epidemiology of the infection in the Irish population and allow identification of individuals who are likely to be immune and therefore safe to return to work. The collaboration also has support from the AIB bank, which in April committed €2.4 million to set up the COVID-19 research hub at Trinity College.

 

The independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies says the total size of UK university sector losses as a result of COVID-19  is highly uncertain, with estimates that long-run losses could come in anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion. The biggest losses are likely to stem from falls in international student enrolments, which will cost between £1.4 billion and £4.3 billion, with a central estimate of £2.8 billion, and increases in the deficits of university-sponsored pension schemes of up to £7.6 billion, with a central estimate of £3.8 billion.

In addition, the sector faces lockdown-related losses of income from student accommodation and conference and catering operations, as well as financial losses on long-term investments. The large sector-level losses mask substantial differences between institutions. In general, institutions with a large share of international students and those with substantial pension obligations are most affected. These tend to be higher-ranking institutions.

 

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