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 European Commission announced conditional marketing authorisation for the antiviral drug remdesivir as the first specific treatment for COVID-19 infections, following an accelerated review by the European Medicines Agency. There is no evidence that remdesivir has any effect on mortality, but it has been shown to reduce the amount of time patients spend in hospital. Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides is reported to be negotiating with the drug’s developer Gilead Sciences, for supplies of remdesivir.


ETH Zürich has announced a funding call for COVID-19 research in any discipline supporting collaborative projects between researchers from Switzerland and the ASEAN region. Applicants will be eligible for up to CHF25,000 (€23,516). Applications close on 30 August 2020. For more funding opportunities, see our database of COVID-19 calls for proposals.


The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) confirmed it received a €2 million donation from Austria to support development of COVID-19 vaccines and help ensure equitable global access. The donation, the first Austria has made to CEPI, is part of the pledge made by the country on 4 May in the global COVID-19 fundraising event led by the European Commission. CEPI is supporting the development of nine COVID-19 vaccines, six of which are in clinical trials. Included in the portfolio is a preclinical COVID-19 vaccine being jointly developed by Vienna-based Themis Biosciences, Institut Pasteur and the University of Pittsburgh, which has CEPI funding of up to $5 million.


Innovate UK, the country’s innovation agency, launched a call for business-led R&D projects that address impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in an environmentally sustainable way. All projects must be led by a company and include at least one SME. COVID-19 has affected R&D across all sectors, and the aim is to help companies recover and grow. Proposals must show evidence of challenges arising as a direct consequence of COVID-19, and how a project can help deal with them. They should not duplicate other UK or EU-funded initiatives underway in areas such as diagnostics or manufacture of vaccines and ventilators. In addition, projects must have a positive impact on climate change and/or environmental sustainability. The maximum grant is £175,000 and the call is open to UK-based companies until 29 July 2020.


The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) today announced it has distributed the €60 million COVID-19 rescue fund launched in mid-May to its eight Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which collectively have received over 1,500 applications from SMEs for emergency funding. The KICs will now distribute the money to the winning companies. The biggest sums were allocated to the food, health and raw material KICs, which will each receive over €9.8 million. EIT estimates 60 per cent of the grant money will be awarded to SMEs in need of emergency financing, with the remainder backing COVID-19 response projects.


The steering committee of the UK Recovery clinical trial, which is testing approved drugs in patients hospitalised with COVID-19 infections, has concluded that there is no beneficial effect of the HIV antiviral drug combination lopinavir-ritonavir. A total of 1,596 patients were randomised to lopinavir-ritonavir and compared with 3,376 patients randomised to usual care alone. There was no significant difference in the primary endpoint of 28-day mortality and the results were consistent in different subgroups of patients. There was also no evidence of beneficial effects on the risk of progression to mechanical ventilation or length of hospital stay. These data convincingly rule out any meaningful mortality benefit of lopinavir-ritonavir in the hospitalised COVID-19 patients studied, the researchers say. This is the third set of results from the Recovery trial, which has shown two drugs used to treat hospitalised COVID-19 patients throughout the world, hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir-ritonavir, do not improve survival, and one drug that was not recommended, dexamethasone, saves lives.  The trial has recruited 11,885 patients to date.


The European Commission announced the pledging summit it organised on 27 June has mobilised €6.15 billion in additional funding to help develop and ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, and support economic recovery from the pandemic in the world’s most fragile regions. The total includes a €4.9 billion pledge by the European Investment Bank and €485 million committed by EU member states. This brings total commitments under the coronavirus pledging marathon, launched by commission president Ursula von der Leyen on 4 May, to €15.9 billion.


The UK government announced a £280 million support scheme for universities, to protect research jobs and projects impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The aid is divided in two tranches, with one providing £200 million in low interest loans to support researchers’ salaries and professional costs, while the second tranche of £80 million from the existing research budget will be directed to ensure the maintenance of high priority R&D projects. Apart from the increased costs of restarting research programmes, UK universities are facing a drastic loss of income because they expect to see a big drop in the number of international students enrolling in the autumn. 

In response to concerns about the quality of COVID-19 papers being published online without peer review, MIT’s publishing arm, MIT Press has announced the launch of an open access journal, which will use artificial intelligence tools to identify the most promising papers in preprint repositories. The journal will then commission expert peer reviews and publish the results on an open access platform. “There is an urgent need to validate—or debunk—the rapidly growing volume of COVID-19-related manuscripts on preprint servers,” said Stefano Bertozzi, professor of health policy and management at the University of California Berkeley, editor of the new COVID-19 rapid-review journal. Rather than three to four weeks, reviewed papers will be published within days.


Seven research and innovation projects across the UK are to get total public and private funding of £400 million to boost local economic growth. The projects are led by consortia in UK cities including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol and Liverpool. Working with experienced local researchers, the projects aim to find efficient ways to support regional economies. Among the projects is a consortium led by Cardiff University to develop technologies in communications, 5G, innovative vehicles and medical devices, which will get £44 million, and one led by Bristol University, which will get £46 million to apply new digital formats in film making in the south west of England.


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