Research on ice across Europe, as all resources are focussed on COVID-19

26 Mar 2020 | News

Universities, research institutes, clinical trials and big science machines are shut down, as scientists are redeployed into critical research areas and medically-trained academic staff freed up to care for patients

Universities and labs across Europe are rapidly scaling back or shutting down research projects as the world shifts its focus to controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

Many universities are only allowing staff and technicians to enter labs for essential tasks, such as tending to cell lines or lab animals. The exception is research in COVID-19 or related areas, in the immediate effort to stem the health emergency.

Some medical schools, including Cambridge University in the UK, are ending clinical teaching. At TU Berlin, where only essential staff are permitted on campus, the following note went around: “No research, teaching, or administrative operations until further notice”.

In a letter to staff, Stephen Toope, vice chancellor of Cambridge University said, “Unless it is related to COVID-19, including vaccines, testing, public health and patient care, all research undertaken on university premises will need to be paused. The only buildings open will be where research is undertaken relating to COVID-19 or other areas in the immediate national interest.”

There was a similar message from Michael Arthur, provost of University College London, the largest biomedical research university in Europe. All of UCL’s clinical research is on hold, and any medically trained staff freed up to work in the health service. “The only research that will take place in our buildings will be in the immediate national interest,” Arthur said. UCL is currently running 20 research projects related to COVID-19.

In Belgium, KU Leuven said it is suspending all non-essential research and no new experiments will be set up in its labs.

ETH Zurich switched to emergency operation after the Swiss Federal Council declared a state of emergency in response to the epidemic. Joel Mesot, ETH president said controlling COVID-19, “must come before anything else.” All activities which require a physical presence on the campus will be stopped. There will be some exemptions, but Mesot said it is clear there will be a “drastic cutback” in ETH research activity. He added, “We will not be making any cutbacks in the research projects focused on coronavirus. On the contrary, we are currently pooling the university’s entire expertise.”

At the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, a handful of top scientists have been granted special exemption to continue research on COVID-19. Otherwise, the labs are shut. “We’re doing everything online now, which involved quite some adjustment to our IT systems. We have critical staff looking after our cell cultures and lab equipment which, if you switched off, would take months to switch back on again,” said Robert-Jan Smits, the university’s president.

Research in the national interest

At Stockholm University, an e-mail went out to the chemistry department last week with the instruction to start producing large quantities of hydroalcoholic gel, which is used as hand sanitiser.

Chemists, after raiding their supplies, came up with an initial batch of 2,600 litres. They also gathered up plastic gloves, facemasks and other items in high demand by hospitals.

“It has been a very important activity to bring some hope in a very difficult situation,” said Lennart Bergström, professor of materials and environmental chemistry at the university.

Otherwise, experimental investigations have stopped. “My PhD students and postdocs have data to analyse and papers to write, so research continues,” said Bergström.

Sweden is an outlier because for now the government has not ordered a full lockdown of the country. “If nothing changes in the [government] recommendations, I plan to restart some experimental research next week,” Bergström said.

At Glasgow University, professor of chemistry Lee Cronin thought briefly about producing a spray-on soap, but concluded that the logistics and safety checks would have taken at least six months.

“And the need is now, not later, so the best thing we can do is slow everything down,” Cronin said. “We’re listening to the government and doing our physical distancing.” Cronin says the shutdown is at least “an opportunity to reassess how we do work in the lab. And I’m not suffering from a lack of data to work with.” He hopes for extensions on grants and potentially some extra funding from the government, when the economy gets back to full speed.  

Caring for laboratory animals

Labs at Warsaw University are now in the service of Poland’s fight against the virus, with hospitals sending DNA samples over for analysis.

Other research requiring lab or fieldwork is parked. Technical staff will still look after equipment but wherever possible, things have been put on idle.

Experiments that cannot be stopped are continued, but with minimal involvement of researchers, says Marcin Pałys, the university’s rector.

“Here, very little experimental work is done with animals, so we have very few of them. But all are provided with the adequate care, and the animal hotel is staffed and equipped with food and everything necessary,” said Pałys.

Libraries are closed, but university staff will provide scans of required materials on rare occasions. All meetings have been replaced by videoconferencing and online teamwork.

“In general, people are very much afraid of moving out from their homes, even with the most extensive sanitary provisions and continuous disinfections of university premises,” said Pałys.

All labs are closed at Ljubljana University in Slovenia, with special “after-hours services” drafted in to take care of research animals, says Darja Lisjak, head of public relations at the university. 

“For now, researchers are not being assigned to other posts that would be required to solve coronavirus-related problems. We are currently not aware of any research project being cancelled, but most likely the deadlines for EU projects will be extended,” she said.

At Trinity College Dublin, research staff may still come into campus for now “on an occasional basis” if they need to prepare online lectures or work in labs.

“The knock-on effects of the pandemic for our researchers are huge as it won’t just be a case of picking up where they left off before restrictions were put in place,” says Jennifer Daly, research strategy officer. “Many of them have had to stop work at critical points, others have lost data that took months to collect, while others can’t do any research at all without access to facilities,” she said.

“Any level of remote working right now is happening under extremely difficult circumstances. Researchers are trying to juggle caring responsibilities, the demands of their jobs, and cope with the stress that life in a global pandemic creates,” said Daly.

In Finland, one of the biggest neuroscience conferences in the calendar, hosted by Aalto University, switched to an online gathering last week. Presenters gave their talks as tweet threads that appeared also on a separate website so that researchers in countries with restricted access to Twitter could follow.

The university put a positive spin on the disruption, saying it allowed for a reduced carbon footprint, while opening access to a bigger audience than those who can afford to attend conferences in person.

Clinical trials on hold

Clinical research, other than that related to COVID-19, is grinding to a halt. It is not safe for patients taking part in clinical trials to visit hospitals for assessments, and medical staff are needed to see to the clinical care of those with serious COVID-19 infections.

Addex Therapeutics, a Swiss biotech, last week announced it was postponing a clinical trial in Parkinson’s disease, because these patients are in one of the highest risk category for severe COVID-19, and because the clinical sites that were due to conduct the study have been told to not to start any new trials.

Similarly, GeNeuro, another Swiss company, said it would delay the start of a phase II trial of its treatment for multiple sclerosis, due to be held at the Karolinska Institutet.

Guidance from the European Medicines Agency says clinical trial organisers should consider halting studies where appropriate, and also suggests some possible work arounds, such as sending trial medication to patients’ homes and conducting assessments by phone. Meanwhile, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says it will be as flexible and pragmatic as possible on reporting requirements to help keep ongoing trials running.  

However, there is now a complete ban in the UK on the set up of sites for any new or ongoing clinical studies in any National Health Service hospital.

Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), which represents 140 research funding bodies, agrees it is right to focus on COVID-19 research, but asked for the blanket ban to be reconsidered. “We ask that decisions on each trial are made with [the] impact on patients in mind,” she said.

AMRC member, Cancer Research UK, Europe’s largest cancer research charity, has postponed the start of all new trials. Stephen Nabarro, head of clinical operations said, “For patients currently on trials, these trials may be more flexible on protocol during this period, including switching face-to-face hospital check-ups to over the phone, and finding different ways to get drugs to patients without them coming into a hospital.”

Charité Berlin, one of Europe’s largest university hospitals, has suspended all research activities requiring face-to-face interaction including clinical trials, with exceptions only for projects with “valid” reasons for continuing. Researchers working on understanding coronavirus and the illness it causes will be allowed to continue their projects. At the same time, some clinical trials will be allowed to progress if they involve perishable or rare reagents.

A spokeswoman for the Medical University of Warsaw in Poland said research at the institution is being carried out according to timelines set in grant agreements. Even though the university has suspended courses, scientific activity at the university will not be limited for now, however, “The situation is very dynamic.”

Big research facilities re-orient work

Operations at the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium (CERIC-ERIC), which has partner facilities in eight EU countries, has slowed, with users no longer able to travel to labs.

“COVID-19 has strongly affected activity,” executive director Jana Kolar told Science|Business. 

CERIC sites have either shut down or reduced their operations and most scheduled projects have been postponed. The facilities in the consortium host experiments in the fields of material science, biomaterials and nanotechnology, but are now only offering remote access for researchers who can send samples via email.

“We continue supporting the projects, where measurements can be taken by the instrument scientist in the absence of the principal investigator, while the others are postponed,” Kolar said.

Despite the slowdown, CERIC is going forward with a call for projects in the autumn and has opened a “priority access lane” for research related to COVID-19. It is also setting up a pilot project for rapid open access to any data derived from coronavirus research.

Similar measures have been taken at the Elettra synchrotron in Trieste, Italy. The facility is working with a limited number of operators and the only experiments still ongoing are those directly related to COVID-19 research. The synchrotron is a partner in the new Exscalate4CoV consortium, an EU-funded COVID-19 drug discovery project.

The two sites of the DESY synchrotron facility in Germany are still open but have reduced their operations. Staff will work from home as much as possible, while presence on campus is reduced to “the required minimum”.

DESY’s particle accelerators and other facilities have been put into safe mode and cannot host new projects. PETRA III X-ray facility is on standby, to be powered up only for researchers working on COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the League of European Accelerator-based Photon Sources, of which DESY is a member, has opened a call for scientists who want to apply for rapid access at seven research infrastructures in Europe to carry out experiments related to COVID-19.

Europe’s largest laser research facility, based in Bucharest, is also slowing down. The Extreme Light Infrastructure for Nuclear Physics has sent half its staff to work from home.

“Most contracts involving delivery of equipment in this period are suspended,” said director Nicolae Zamfir. But for now at least, the suspension does not affect the planning of future experiments. “If the situation continues for several months, we will probably have to postpone some experiments,” Zamfir said.

Despite the considerable disruption, the facility will carry on major laser experiments. Last week, researchers started an experiment that is expected to last several weeks, and are preparing for another round of experiments in the near future.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up