THE EUROPEAN UNION’S response to COVID-19 experienced a blow in early April as the president of the European Research Council (ERC), Mauro Ferrari, resigned. The resignation of the pharmaceutical sciences professor – fewer than three months following his recruitment – as the Coronavirus pandemic escalated throughout Europe was, as one would expect, unexpected. The catalyst for Ferrari’s resignation? The response of the EU and, in particular, Ferrari’s own organisation, the ERC to the Covid-19 crisis.
Formally established in 2007 to finance scientific and technological research conducted across the EU, the ERC forms an essential part of the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation, “Horizon 2020”. Initiated and implemented by the European Commission, Horizon 2020 currently holds a €75 billion budget over seven years (2014-2020), €13 billion (17%) of which is reserved for the ERC. Horizon 2020 is directly funded by the European Union’s “Multiannual Financial Framework”, which is responsible for regulating the European Union’s annual budget (which currently amounts to around €160 billion annually, or 1% of EU gross domestic product).
Although the administration of the ERC is conducted by an executive agency controlled by the European Commission, the ERC is afforded considerable autonomy with respect to scientific direction. The Scientific Council – the organisation’s governing body – is composed of scientific researchers, and decisions are made exclusively on the scientific merit of proposals. The ERC is an investigator-driven initiative, in other words, the direction of the ERC is dictated by researchers rather than politicians; the ERC serves scientific interest rather than political interest.
The emergence of the coronavirus prompted criticism of the ERC’s investigator-driven design. Ferrari felt that a robust response to the pandemic required a pre-defined, prescribed and politically relevant research programme – the Scientific Council felt differently. Despite limitations on the ERC’s ability to respond to the virus, the ERC produced numerous projects relevant to COVID-19. Indeed, the ERC lists at least 53 pre-existing projects – from research on mechanisms of infection and medical devices, to studies on social behaviour – with applicability to the coronavirus.
One example, in the field of epidemiological forecasting, is EPIFOR. A research project initiated in 2008 (and completed in 2013), EPIFOR centred on the use of computational models to predict and control the development of epidemics. Incorporating disciplines including mathematics, statistics and computational science, EPIFOR collected and collated immense data sets from which to develop computational models. According to Vittoria Colizza, principal investigator on the project, the computational models and tools developed by the EPIFOR provide the foundation for current research on COVID-19.
On 30 January – days following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Europe – the European Commission released a request for expressions of interest in research related to the coronavirus. Entitled “SC1-PHE-CORONAVIRUS-2020: advancing knowledge for the clinical and public health response to the [COVID-19] epidemic”, the research initiative received an initial budget of €10 million (since increased to €48.5 million). A response as rapid and robust as “SC1-PHE-CORONAVIRUS-2020” was facilitated by the budget for emergency research funds that the Commission maintains as part of the Horizon 2020 programme.
Recent initiatives introduced to address COVID-19 include Exscalate4Cov and OPENCORONA. Whereas the Exscalate4Cov initiative is designed to accelerate the identification of existing medications capable of addressing the virus, OPENCORONA is intended to develop a novel vaccine for the virus. In sum, the object of Exscalate4Cov is to identify medications capable of treating COVID-19, the object of OPENCORONA is to develop a vaccine capable of preventing COVID-19.
A consortium of 18 partners from 7 Member States, Exacalte4Cov utilises Europe’s supercomputing infrastructure as a means of identifying molecules capable of attaching to proteins on SARS-CoV-2, neutralising (but not preventing) the virus. Termed “drug repurposing”, identifying and repurposing existing medication is a strategy with significant benefits, including reduced clinical requirements and pre-existing supply chains.
In contrast to Exacalte4Cov, OPENCORONA – led by the Karolinska Institutet Sweden – is focused on finding a vaccine for the virus; as the SARS-CoV-2 envelope and receptor domain has less than 75% homology (structural similarity) with other human Coronaviruses (such as the MERS-CoV) an entirely new vaccine is required. The vaccine that OPENCORONA are exploring generates a viral antigen that triggers the immune system. The first human trials of the OPENCORONA vaccine are expected to commence in 2021.
In Ireland, two initiatives are receiving funding from the EU to address COVID-19. Hibergene Diagnostics, based in Sandyford, recently received funding for an initiative involving partners in China, Italy and the United Kingdom. Entitled “HG nCoV19 test”, the initiative is designed to develop rapid molecular diagnostic tests. The tests are expected to deliver results in 60 minutes, a considerable difference compared with the average 72 hour response rate for laboratory tests.
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), meanwhile, is a participant in the “I-MOVE-COVID-19” consortium, focused on obtaining epidemiological and clinical information on patients with COVID-19. The I-MOVE-COVID-19 project intends to contribute to the overall knowledge on COVID-19 and to inform the public health response to the pandemic.
The Coronavirus is a global crisis and the EU’s scientific research response reflects that: in addition to European research projects funded by Horizon 2020, the EU is coordinating international initiatives with the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Diseases Preparedness (GloPID-R) and is a contributor to the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI). The European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), meanwhile, is funding calls from Horizon 2020 to support research on the coronavirus and reinforce research capacities in sub-Saharan Africa.
In sum, while personalities may grab the headlines, there is much more to the EU’s scientific research response to Covid-19, both building on past research on how epidemics develop, and initiating new innovative research projects on medication and vaccination.