Supporting Scientific Research – COVID-19 News Roundup for July 2020

 

Welcome to RESEARCHconnect’s monthly roundup of news on coronavirus/COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the Content Team will be closely tracking coronavirus news of relevance to our clients and producing this roundup in addition to our usual news output.

Horizon 2020 Work Programme Updated to Support COVID-19 Research and Innovation

On 17 June, the European Commission amended the current Horizon 2020 work programme as part of its pledge to invest €1 billion from the Horizon 2020 budget into COVID-19 research and innovation. This update makes an initial €641 million available through internal budget redeployment within Horizon 2020. It is made up of budget not yet allocated in the current work programmes as well as reflows from financial instruments.

The new figure is €33 million less than initially foreseen at the launch of the Coronavirus Global Response initiative on 4 May, because the Commission has abandoned plans to devote an additional €32.5 million to Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions to finance the travel of researchers working on international COVID-19 projects.

The amended Work Programme includes the following new actions:

  • €400 million under Access to Risk Finance for InnovFin Infectious Diseases Financial Facility, implemented by the European Investment Bank (EIB). This will enable the EIB to fund pre-commercial stage investments in the area of infectious diseases.
  • €172 million to fund additional research and innovation actions on the coronavirus pandemic and to extend promising projects already underway.
  • €50 million in additional support of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, notably to develop vaccines.
  • €15.5 million to set up a Population Health Information Research Infrastructure to collect and make available data that can support research and policy decisions.
  • €3.5 million for the deployment of innovative robotics solutions in healthcare.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: 'Europe is leading the global response to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and its social and economic impact. Research and innovation is at the core of our coordinated response, and Horizon 2020 has proven its value as a flexible instrument to address this crisis. The €1 billion in funding is already boosting efforts to find solutions to test, treat and prevent coronavirus for all.'

UK and German Governments Announce Funds to Support Research Sector through COVID-19

The UK Government this month announced the future launch of two funds to help support higher education institutions and researchers affected by the impact of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. The plans involve a mixture of loans and grants to cover up to 80% of institutions' income losses caused by the expected decline in international students, as well as additional resources to support UKRI grant-funded research and fellowships.

From the autumn, the Government will provide a package of support to research-active universities, consisting of low-interest loans with long pay-back periods, supplemented by a small amount of government grants. This is designed to cover up to 80% of a university's income losses from international students for the academic year 20/21, up to the value of non-publicly funded research activity in that university. The package will be made available to fund research and high priority projects, such as medical research and STEM subjects, and funds must be used on research and retaining research talent.

In addition, the UKRI Costed Grant Extension Allocation will provide UK organisations with resources to sustain UKRI grant-funded research and fellowships affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The first amounts will be made immediately available and can support research and technical staff and research infrastructures during the period of pandemic disruption and its immediate aftermath. Individual allocations to organisations will be calculated based on the value of the UKRI grants held by an organisation whose funding finishes between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021. Organisations will be contacted by UKRI in due course with details of their grant allocation.

The final format of the funds will be decided in the coming weeks based on consultation. In the meantime, initial details of the funds are available here.

In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) this month announced an Interim Aid fund for students in Germany who are facing immediate financial hardship due to COVID-19 and are unable to overcome this through other means of support. Through the scheme students can apply for between €100 and €500 of support in the months of June, July and August. The support is non-repayable and recognises that many students lost their part-time jobs during the pandemic.

The overall budget for this programme is €100 million. Interim financial aid can be applied for by German and foreign students who are enrolled at a public or state-recognised higher education institution in Germany. Students benefiting from loans, scholarships or similar in the relevant month are not excluded from applying for interim financial aid.

European Commission Launches EU COVID-19 Vaccines Strategy

The European Commission has published a new strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing and deployment of vaccines against COVID-19. The Commission will support efforts to accelerate the development and availability of safe and effective vaccines in a timeframe between 12 and 18 months, if not earlier.

In order to support companies in the swift development and production of a vaccine, the Commission will enter into agreements with individual vaccine producers on behalf of the Member States. In return for the right to buy a specified number of vaccine doses in a certain timeframe, the Commission will finance part of the upfront costs faced by vaccines producers.

This will take the form of Advance Purchase Agreements. Funding provided will be considered as a down-payment on the vaccines that will be purchased by Member States. The related funding will come from a significant part of the €2.7 billion Emergency Support Instrument. Additional support will be available through loans from the European Investment Bank.

Wellcome Trust, Europe’s biggest biomedical research foundation, has expressed support for the strategy. Alex Harris, Wellcome’s Head of Global Policy, said: 'This is positive news, and we applaud the EU for agreeing to work together to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and deployment of vaccines against COVID-19. This is not just a European challenge, but also a global one. The fastest, most effective way to beat COVID-19 is to globally pool expertise and funding - for that reason we hope other countries will be able to join the EU effort soon.’

'We are encouraged by the EU’s ambition to not only reserve future vaccines for their own citizens, but also for low- and middle-income countries at the same time. It is vital that any safe and effective vaccine should go to those who are at most risk everywhere, not just those who can afford to pay the most.'

Research - Life in Lockdown

Several months on from the battle to contain the spread of COVID-19, the world is beginning to reflect on life within lockdown and the impact of coronavirus across a range of areas including financial markets and economies, the environment, education, social and psychological consequences etc.

COVID-19 has caused worldwide disruption and uncertainty - and had dramatic impacts. The intensity and speed of research is resulting in huge volumes of work that would normally take years to create. Databases continue to be established to manage the research effort eg the BMBF Funded project COLLABOVID offers a platform to easily find the latest research published on COVID-19. According to a report by Digital Science (authors Daniel Hook and Simon Porter), 'more than 8,300 organisations have been involved in supporting COVID-19 research, with over 71,800 individual researchers identified as working on COVID-19 research.'

The impacts of COVID-19 have been contradictory and added to the confusing, disparate and unsettling nature of life inside a global pandemic. An example is the environment, which has experienced the benefits of a ‘carbon crash’ and the consequences of an ‘economic crash’.

Professor Christian Rutz from the University of St Andrews is President of the International Bio-logging Society. In the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution Professor Rutz et al introduce the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative and the term ‘anthropause’ to describe the global-scale, temporary reduction in human mobility during the pandemic. The paper, by Professor Rutz et al, highlights the benefits and concerns relating to the effects of the anthropause on wildlife from ‘dolphins in untypically calm waters in the harbour of Trieste’, to lack of food for some urban-dwelling animals.

National Geographic has highlighted the proliferation of poaching in conservation reserves as rangers and keepers self-isolated. As global tourism ground to a halt, it brought economic consequences. In addition, this imposed ‘human pause’ may have provided time for temporary reflection but will there be a concerted global effort to change?

Prof Rutz et al comment in their paper, 'Scientific knowledge gained during this devastating crisis will allow us to develop innovative strategies for sharing space on this increasingly crowded planet, with benefits for both wildlife and humans.'

COVID-19 is impacting us all, within a fast-moving context and rapid collaborative action emerged within global and local communities through lockdowns and collective efforts in the fight against the virus. As countries attempt to reopen, a focus on life inside and outside the pandemic is happening in tandem.

There is still a necessity for immediate and accelerated research studies on the medical and epidemiological aspects of COVID-19. The Wellcome Trust has published ‘The Vaccine Journey’, from funding vaccine R&D to delivery and access. It provides detailed information on how vaccine R&D works and how funding has supported possible COVID-19 vaccines. In addition, there is also the need for rapid socio-economic responses. The UN’s Framework for the ‘Immediate Socio-Economic Response to the COVID 19 Crisis’ report describes the pandemic as ‘far more than a health crisis’.

In a new pandemic-inspired series of the #ERCasks podcast, European Research Council grantees have shared their experiences of our ‘current reality’. The sharing of experiences to support immediate responses and overcome challenges, also continues to be facilitated through freely available webinars, as institutions continue to move activities online.

On 11 June, RESEARCHconnect participated in two webinars on COVID-19 and its impact on the higher education sector. Firstly, a British Council webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on student mobility. Particularly of note here was an analysis of international students from all regions planning to study in the UK in autumn 2020. The Council asked undergraduates and postgraduates to indicate a preference to either defer their studies to January 2021 or commence their courses online in their home country in autumn 2020 if a normal autumn 2020 start is not possible. Whereas undergraduates were generally split on the issue, a majority of postgraduates - whose courses generally only last for a single year - indicated a preference to defer to January.

Taken together, the British Council predicted a baseline 13% decline in incoming students. While this figure appears stark, it is comparable with previous declines and was indeed presented as a positive given the extent of the crisis. The Council did note that previous downturns have led to sustained drops in student numbers for a number of years, and it is likely that this trend will continue. However, they also emphasised the resilience of student mobility and its ability to ‘bounce back’ following setbacks. Therefore, while caution and preparation are necessary, there does appear to be cause for optimism, at least in the medium term.

RESEARCHconnect also joined a European University Association (EUA) webinar titled ‘COVID-19 and Changes in Learning and Teaching’. The webinar explored how European universities have shifted to online teaching and interacting due to coronavirus and posed the following questions:

  • Which challenges have been solved, which ones still prevail?
  • How have higher education institutions managed to transform learning and teaching in this context?
  • What are the lessons learnt so far?
  • What are the prospects and future scenarios for the autumn semester, and beyond?

Kornelia Freitag, Vice President for Learning and Teaching and International Affairs at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, Manel Jimenez Morales, Commissioner for Education and Communication Projects at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain and Wyn Morgan, Vice President for Education at the University of Sheffield, UK spoke about their experiences with remote teaching, their plans for the upcoming academic year, and their views on the overall impact of the COVID-19 crisis on learning and teaching.

Looking ahead, RESEARCHconnect is planning to attend the upcoming European Commission webinar on 7 July exploring how cities are dealing with and responding to the pandemic.

Consideration of ‘future scenarios’ acknowledges the global concern that coronavirus has ‘redesigned’ our world. Attention is turning to understanding the impact of the pandemic in the longer-term and from a broader perspective. Research will also be at the core of this challenge.

A paper by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (authors Michael Bayerlein, and Győző Gyöngyösi) 'The Impact of Covid-19 on Populism: Will it be Weakened?' looks at the possible effects of the pandemic on support for populist governments around the world. According to the paper, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to examine the performance of populist governments. How will the COVID-19 crisis affect populist leaders in the months to come?’ Populism is characterised by its versatility but may not be concerned with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on developing nations and vulnerable populations etc. Going completely back to the old way of doing things may not be desirable, or even an option.

The newly established body Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) Interdisciplinary Commission for Pandemic Research is looking at all research disciplines, and its task is to strengthen knowledge-driven research. DFG-funded projects investigating pandemics and epidemics will be supported by the new commission. This will include both existing work and research projects supported through the cross-disciplinary call launched by the DFG at the end of March (deadline for Letters of Intent was 1 July 2020). The commission has a long-term focus and intends to work at both national and international levels.

What We’ve Seen: Call Updates

The funding landscape continues to evolve as the situation and impacts of COVID-19 develop. Elsewhere in Germany, the BMBF this month launched a €750 million fund to further clinical vaccine development in phases I–III. The call seeks to develop and expand production capacities in Germany and increase the number of subjects in later clinical trial phases with the particular goal of helping vulnerable people. It is open to all companies that are active in vaccine development and production and are based in Germany, provided they pursue a promising approach, and applications may be submitted until 15 July.

Elsewhere in Europe, the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR - National Research Agency) launched the Hybridisation of Higher Education Studies call to help higher education institutions adapt to the unique challenges the virus has caused. Funding of €1 million to €5 million is available over a period of 18 months to help institutions adapt to the technological challenges brought by coronavirus and to support students who are not used to these teaching methods from the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

In addition, the European Commission this month approved the French Government’s €5 billion ‘umbrella’ scheme to stimulate the R&D into medicinal products such as vaccines, medicaments, hospital and medical equipment (including ventilators), and protective clothing and equipment. The funding will also improve the rapid construction of production facilities for these products, as well as for necessary raw materials and ingredients. The public support will take the form of direct grants, repayable advances and tax advantages, and is open to all enterprises capable to carry out such activities in all sectors.

At the global level, Microsoft this month announced an extension of its Microsoft AI for Health COVID-19 Grant. This call initially launched in January 2020 with the aim of advancing the health of people and communities around the world through AI and data science tools, but was adapted following the pandemic to focus on helping those on the front lines of research into COVID-19. A total of $20 million is available and applications are accepted from non-profit organisations, academia, commercial organisations and governments in any country worldwide. The original deadline of 15 June has now been extended to 15 July 2020.

Alongside these calls to tackle the disease itself are funds designed to address its impacts, particularly those areas affecting the most vulnerable and where the consequences of a lack of focus may be most dire. One example of this can be seen with the launch of a call from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in partnership with the Policy and Evidence Centre for Human Rights and Modern Slavery to support research into the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on those who are vulnerable to, or victims or survivors of, modern slavery. The call, with no fixed deadline, provides funding of up to £150,000 for up to six months to generate evidence to improve understanding of the effects of the pandemic on behaviours, systems and structures associated with modern slavery.

Coronavirus is affecting all areas of society and the economy, and the funding landscape is responding accordingly with support for those areas that will continue to be affected long after the initial peak of the virus is over. Reflecting this, the European Commission this month launched a DG CONNECT preparatory action to support cinema in creating innovative cultural hubs around cinema theatres, notably in areas where there is limited cinema and cultural infrastructure and where the crisis has had a very strong impact. A range of activities will be supported to test new cinema-going experiences while taking into account local audiences’ needs, and the Commission expects to finance up to five projects with a maximum of €500,000 grant per project.

What We’ve Seen: Successful Funding Applications

At the European level, the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE) awarded a further ten projects with a total of 227,578,000 core hours under the Fast Track Call for Proposals to support the mitigation of the impact of the pandemic. The main goal is to find ways to prevent coronavirus from replicating in human cells, while also exploring intelligent therapies, drug repositioning, anti-viral drugs, and vaccines. Scientists will also create simulations to find adequate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide for each patient according to their condition and comorbidities.

Within the UK, an example of the range of topics receiving financial support was seen with the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) announcement of five environmental engagement projects that would receive £10,000 each. These projects are designed to make researchers’ science more accessible to the public and help people stay engaged with wider environmental topics, helping them understand, address and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the environment and society.

Elsewhere, Science Foundation Ireland this month announced that 11 new COVID-19 research and innovation projects would receive funding totalling €1.4 million. The investment builds on previous funding and complements the existing research work underway in higher education institutions across the country. Funded projects include remote blood-pressure monitoring in pregnancy, development of tests for antibodies, addressing supply chain challenges and computer modelling the impact of COVID-19.

Further successful projects were announced in Spain, where the Ministry of Science and Innovation (CDTI) issued €2.9 million to support the first seven projects of its extraordinary COVID-19 call. The call was launched to support projects aimed at increasing the production of emergency supplies, improving the treatment and diagnosis of the disease and contributing to the implementation of public health measures. Funded projects include work on producing vaccines against COVID-19, investing in respirators, and the manufacture of protective medical devices.

RESEARCHconnect Coverage

RESEARCHconnect will continue to support the international research community as it adjusts to the 'new normal' of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our ongoing coverage of funding and policy will help you keep pace with the latest developments in COVID-19 support and strategies.

We will also keep you informed of other non-COVID-19 events that will still have a huge impact on the funding landscape this year. As the clock ticks down to 2021, several key issues for the research community are still unresolved. The European Commission and European Parliament remain in protracted negotiations over the next EU Long-Term Budget and the scheduled launch of Horizon Europe in January 2021 remains far from assured.

As these events unfold, the RESEARCHconnect team will continue to bring you all the key information needed to help navigate these unprecedented times.

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