Overview of research actions to combat COVID-19
The European Commission has been at the forefront of supporting research and innovation and coordinating European and global research efforts, including preparedness for pandemics.
Around €4 billion were invested in infectious diseases research through the 7th Framework Programme and Horizon 2020 from 2007 to 2019 by:
- Supporting key research and innovation projects and the development of new technologies, such as mRNA. BioNTech made use of its mRNA technology to develop and manufacture HIV vaccine candidates in the EAVI2020 project, which started in 2015.
- Investing in developing clinical networks and research infrastructures to ensure preparedness to deliver clinical research. Projects such as COMBACTE and PREPARE laid the groundwork for EU-funded projects in the area of preparedness to outbreaks, including new ways of designing and implementing efficient clinical trials which were key to understand and tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Boosting epidemiology research and modelling and social science to develop better monitoring systems and understand the social causes and consequences of outbreaks.
As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission launched several special actions for coronavirus research from Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, as part of a €1 billion pledge for coronavirus research.
- On 30 January 2020, the European Commission launched its first emergency call on Coronavirus research through which €48.2 million were awarded to 18 research projects.
- On 19 May 2020, the Commission launched a second emergency call, through which €128 million were awarded to 24 research projects.
- Projects funded via these two calls encompass the full spectrum of research and innovation to respond to the threat and better prepare for future outbreaks, from basic research, modelling, digital tools, epidemiology, the development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, to the understanding of behaviour and socio-economic effects during the outbreak, as well as the infrastructures and resources that enable all this research.
Making use of the full range of instruments
The full range of research and innovation instruments under the Framework Programmes was swiftly mobilised to deliver the necessary evidence and tools across the full research and innovation value chain: European Research Council, collaborative research, public-public and public-private partnerships (European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership and Innovative Medicines Initiative / Innovative Health Initiative), European Innovation Council and the European Investment Bank.
With a financial support of €100 million, the European Investment Bank was instrumental in helping BioNTech to use the mRNA technology for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The EC-mediated advance purchase agreement further enabled the manufacturing of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, which was the first to receive marketing authorisation in the EU.
HERA Incubator call
In addition, the Commission announced the HERA Incubator call for urgent research into coronavirus variants on 15 April 2021, with €120 million. 12 projects are funded under this call, which are addressing the four topics of the emergency request for expressions of interest:
- Clinical trials for therapeutics and vaccines to boost COVID-19 prevention and treatment and further inform public health policy and clinical management.
- Cohorts united against COVID-19 variants of concern supporting activities that are enabling or contributing to the development of large scale, COVID-19 cohorts and networks worldwide, including beyond Europe’s borders, forging links with European initiatives as a global response to the pandemic.
- FAIR and open data sharing in support to European preparedness for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, to further develop and integrate platforms for the sharing of relevant research resources.
- Research infrastructure services for rapid research responses to COVID-19 and other infectious disease epidemics, to set up and provide access to a comprehensive portfolio of relevant services.
To ensure that the most promising medical countermeasures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic were developed, the European Commission established two European trial networks that enable the implementation of large-scale multi-centre clinical trials: a therapeutics trial network, and a vaccine trials network.
- The network on COVID-19 therapeutic trials consists of three EU-funded trials, covering hospitalised and intensive care patients. The EU SolidAct trial; the DisCoVeRy trial and the REMAP-CAP trial. A fourth adaptive platform trial looking for treatments in a primary care population is being set up under the ECRAID-PRIME project, which was funded under the HERA incubator call. These projects share a joint coordination module to ensure optimal coordination of trials in the EU and abroad and provides a single-entry point for new study arms in the European COVID-19 adaptive platform trials. The coordination module is composed of a Trial Coordination Board (TCB), a Joint Access Advisory Mechanism (JAAM) and an Adaptive Platform Trial Toolbox.
The therapeutic trials have actively contributed to informing clinical patient management. A key result from the REMAP-CAP trial concerned the use of Tocilizumab and Sarilumab, monoclonal antibodies normally used for rheumatoid arthritis, and which are now routinely integrated in the management of severely ill COVID-19 patients. The DisCoVeRy trial contributed to the evidence related to the absence of effect of treatment with Hydroxychloroquine, Lopinavir and Interferon.
- The European vaccine trial network (VACCELERATE) acts as a single-entry point for vaccine developers that are interested in doing vaccine trials in Europe. As of 1 September 2023, it gathers 490 sites in 39 countries, and keeps a registry for volunteers – including children – who are interested in participating in vaccine trials. VACCELERATE currently implements three trials assessing the immune response to the COVID-19 vaccines in both adults and children.
- Both networks (vaccines and therapeutics) are key contributors to the consultation of the World Health Organization on the implementation of the Resolution 75.8 passed by the World Health Assembly in May 2022 on ‘Strengthening clinical trials to provide high-quality evidence on health interventions and to improve research quality and coordination’.
COVID-19 Data Portal
Moreover, the COVID-19 Data Portal was launched in April 2020 to bring together relevant datasets for sharing and analysis in an effort to accelerate coronavirus research. It enables researchers to upload, access and analyse COVID-19 related reference data and specialist datasets as part of the wider European COVID-19 Data Platform, a priority pilot of the European Open Science Cloud.
Building on the success of this platform, the BeYond-COVID (BY-COVID) project was awarded with €12 million funding from Horizon Europe to provide comprehensive open data on SARS-CoV-2 and other infectious diseases across scientific, medical, public health and policy domains.
In the context of BY-COVID, the platform now integrates Social Sciences and Humanities COVID-related data from the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) ERIC. In addition, the platform is being repurposed and already accepting monkeypox viral data, illustrating that it can become a blueprint for other pathogens and diseases.
Research on the post COVID-19 condition (also known as “long COVID”)
The Commission is funding research to understand and tackle long COVID from early on in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Around €66 million were invested to support large cohort studies on COVID-19 that are following populations from around the world during longer periods of time to help determine long-term consequences and symptoms of COVID-19 infections. These include the Horizon 2020 project ORCHESTRA (€26 million) from the first Expression of Interest call in January 2020, and also four Horizon Europe projects VERDI, COVICIS, EU-CARE and END-VOC funded from the HERA Incubator call in 2021 (around €10 million per project).
To ensure and strengthen effective collaboration and networking between the EU-funded COVID-19 cohort projects, the Commission established a Cohorts Coordination Board. The Cohorts Coordination Board brings together all relevant projects to work together on specific topics such as data standards, data harmonisation and long-term syndromes of COVID-19 patients. A dedicated long-COVID Working Group has been set up under the Cohorts Coordination Board to share findings related to long COVID and to provide more robust evidence needed to better characterise long COVID and facilitate its diagnosis, symptoms’ management and potential therapeutic approaches.
Additionally, the DRAGON project (€11.5 million) funded by IMI2 in October 2020 launched a global study on long COVID.
More recently, under the 2021 Horizon Europe call, “Personalised medicine and infectious diseases: understanding the individual host response to viruses (e.g. SARS-CoV-2)”, the Commission funded six projects which conduct research activities on understanding, diagnosis and potential treatment of long COVID: LONG COVID; NEUROCOV; HERVCOV; UNDINE; REACTandEPIVINF. These projects started between June-September 2022 and receive a total budget of €42.3 million.
Pandemic preparedness partnership
A European partnership for pandemic preparedness is under development, to improve EU’s preparedness to predict and respond to emerging infectious health threats. The partnership will ensure better coordination of funding for research and innovation at EU, national and regional level towards common objectives and an agreed Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda.
Preparatory work on the Pandemic Preparedness Partnership is being done via the BE READY project, which is a coordination and support action funded under Horizon Europe. BE READY started its work in September 2022 and brings together 13 Member States, Norway and the United Kingdom. The main task of BE READY is to prepare the partnership proposal as well as a strategic innovation and research agenda on pandemic preparedness.
COVID-19 Pandemic timeline
See below the key points of the EU response to the pandemic. For the full coverage you can visit the Archived Coronavirus website.
- 30 January 2020
World Health Organization (WHO) declares the new coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
- 30 January 2020
First emergency call on Coronavirus research is launched by the Commission, through which €48.2 million were awarded to 18 research projects.
- 19 May 2020
Second emergency call on Coronavirus research is launched by the Commission, through which 24 research projects where funded.
- 15 April 2021
HERA incubator call is launched for urgent research into coronavirus variants.
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