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 number of weekly cases of COVID-19 in Europe spiked for the first time in months as countries began to lift lockdown restrictions, according to the World Health Organisation. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe warned the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating again. “Thirty countries have seen increases in new cumulative cases over the past two weeks,” Kluge said. “In 11 of these countries, accelerated transmission has led to very significant resurgence that if left unchecked will push health systems to the brink once again.” Currently, Europe is reporting close to 20,000 new cases and 700 deaths every day, a significant decrease since the first months of the pandemic in Europe.


Removing another potential hump in COVID-19 vaccines supply chains, the Stevanato group, an Italian pharmaceutical packaging manufacturer, has been contracted to produce glass vials for up to two billion doses of vaccines funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Under the agreement announced today, the group will provide 100 million vials, each of which can hold 20 doses. Medicines regulators will have to approve the packaging of multiple doses in a single vial. CEPI has to date invested $829 million in nine vaccine candidates, five of which have begun clinical trials.


The Council of Europe’s Bioethics Committee has published a five-year action plan on best practices in the protection of human rights in biomedicine, with the aim of restoring confidence and improving health care following the heavy impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan focuses on addressing the key challenges posed by technological developments and on trends in biomedical practices. These include the governance of technology, where the aim is to embed human rights in the development of technologies used in biomedicine; recommendations on how to promote equitable access to innovative therapies; a guide to good practice in involving children in decisions about their clinical care; and measures to strengthen mental health provision.


The UK system for assessing tests for coronavirus infection is to be managed through a single national programme of research that will evaluate how new diagnostic tests perform outside the controlled environment of the lab, when used in hospitals, general practices and care homes. The £1.3 million COVID-19 National Diagnostic Research and Evaluation Platform, managed by Manchester and Oxford’s university hospitals, will bring together experts with experience of evaluating diagnostic tests and generating the evidence needed be confident they are accurate.

While a new diagnostic test might work well in a lab under controlled conditions, there are many different factors that could make it less accurate when used in the real world, and the programme will put the many tests that are being developed to either detect current COVID-19, infection or to find out if someone has previously been infected, through their paces.


The UK Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), representing 160 charities that invested a combined £1.9 billion in biomedical R&D in 2019, is calling on the UK government to back a rescue fund, after seeing their incomes plummet during the pandemic. Overall, there has been a 41 per cent decline in incomes, while at the same time the research they fund has been hit by the closure of universities, the pausing of most non-COVID-19 clinical trials, and the fact that many of the researchers they back have been redeployed to work on the front line, treating COVID-19 patients.  Cancer Research UK, the largest charitable funder of cancer research in the world, may be forced to cut its budget by £150 million next year, while the British Heart Foundation, which funds more than half of all non-commercial cardiovascular research in the UK, has seen its income cut from £100 million to £50 million. AMRC wants the government to set up a Life Sciences Charities partnership fund, with £310 million from the government to be matched-funded by medical charities.  


Scientists and national academy members from 15 European countries have endorsed a call for a European foundation, modelled on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for the prevention of environmental and health crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the limited coordination among European countries when they need to act quickly and forcefully, and the foundation would connect scientists and philanthropists to support European research into technology and therapeutics to better respond to future epidemics. An initial endowment of €20 billion is required. See the full list of signatories here.


While there has been a short-term fall in carbon emissions and air pollution during COVID-19 lockdowns, the benefits may be outweighed by a halt in spending on clean energy innovation, according to a Yale University study. US jobs in the clean energy sector dropped by 600,000 to the end of April, as investment in energy efficiency plummeted. In a worst-case scenario, an additional 2,500 million metric tonnes of CO2 may be emitted by 2035 due to the decrease in clean energy spending in the US, causing 40 extra deaths per month. Meanwhile, the study estimates, 200 lives per month have been saved as a result of the reduction in air pollution since lockdowns began.


Belgium has received approval from the European Commission for a €21 million state aid to support the production of COVID-19 medical products, equipment, technologies and raw materials in Flanders. The scheme, which is open to all Flemish companies, excluding financial institutions, will support the production of vaccines and treatments, medical equipment and devices, disinfectants, data collection and processing instruments.


Researchers at Cambridge University working with counterparts from Seoul National University in South Korea and Lehigh University in the US, have produced the first open-source atom-by-atom animated model of the spike protein by which the COVID-19 virus locks onto and enters human cells. Its central role in viral entry makes the spike protein a main target for vaccine and antiviral drug development, and the model makes it possible to simulate molecular dynamics in silico. Researchers will be able to visualise molecular level interactions that cannot be observed in any other way. The details are in a paper published online in The Journal of Physical Chemistry B.


The Horizon 2020 in silico drug discovery project Exscalate4CoV has discovered that raloxifene, a selective oestrogen receptor modulator for treating osteoporosis, could potentially be used to treat mild COVID-19 infections. The project used supercomputer resources around Europe to screen 400,000 molecules, selecting 7,000 to test in vitro. That uncovered 40 molecules active against the virus, of which raloxifene was found to have the greatest antiviral properties. According to a press release from the European Commission, the European Medicines Agency is being asked to review the data and give approval for a clinical trial. Exscalate4CoV, which has 33 partners across Europe, was awarded €3 million to search for potential treatments for the coronavirus from the European Commission’s first COVID-19 research response fund.


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