Part One: Mobilising research in the fight against coronavirus

Important notice:

The following article will be updated regularly as the situation evolves and new measures and initiatives are brought in by our universities. If you have stories (and photos) to share, please contact us at info@4euplus.eu or reach out to us on social media (Twitter: @4EUplusAlliance, Facebook: @4EUplusAlliance).


Don't forget to sign up to our newsletter!


Researchers from three 4EU+ universities involved in projects selected in the first EU emergency call

On 30 January 2020, the European Commission launched a call for research projects that would tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The total budget of the call was €47.5 million, with €37.5 million coming from the Horizon 2020 budget for urgently needed research on COVID-19 vaccine development, treatment and diagnostics. In total, 17 research projects were awarded funding, with consortia involving 136 research teams from across the EU and beyond, including three 4EU+ member institutions, Sorbonne University, University of Copenhagen and University of Milan.


Sorbonne University is part of the I-MOVE-COVID-19 consortium, bringing together 20 organisations. The project, entitled “Multidisciplinary European network for research, prevention and control of the COVID-19 Pandemic” intends to set up a flexible surveillance platform that will help collect epidemiological and clinical information on patients with COVID-19. The project will also provide research and evaluation of public health interventions. In their research efforts, the project team wants to build on the existing, long-running, Europe-wide influenza surveillance network (I-MOVE). Visit the project website.


University of Milan is a partner in the second largest consortium among the 17 awarded by the Commission. The Exscalate4CoV project, led by an Italian pharmaceutical company Dompe farmaceutici SpA, aims to resolve the 3D structures of essential viral proteins, which will enable the generation of computer models of likely future mutations of the coronavirus and provide the basis for in silico screening of compound libraries. The researchers will use the Exscalate supercomputing platform, which can process three million molecules every second and has a database of 500 billion molecules. At UMIL, the project is led by Professor Giulio Vistoli and Associate Professor Alessandro Pedretti of the Molecular Modelling & Drug Design Unit at the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department. Find out more about the Exscalate4CoV project...


Professor Ali Salanti, Associate Professor Morten Agertoug Nielsen and Associate Professor Adam Sander, researchers from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen, are members of the PREVENT-nCOV consortium which has been awarded a grant of €2.7 million for their project aimed at developing and testing a vaccine for COVID-19 in clinical studies within 12 months. It is the University of Copenhagen that owns the patent for the vaccine technology which the researchers are currently using in their work. The preclinical trials of the vaccine will also be performed under the auspices of the University of Copenhagen. Find out more about the PREVENT-nCOV project…


Extra funds support university research to help fight

COVID-19

With more than 340 medical professors and 2,500 intern physicians working in several different hospitals, University of Milan has been at the frontline in the battle against the first large-scale COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. The UMIL’s personnel at the Luigi Sacco University Hospital, one of the two National Reference Centres for Infective Diseases in the country, have become heavily involved in the management of the coronavirus crisis which rapidly extended to other hospitals where UMIL’s has its departments.


In light of this situation, already on 3 March 2020, University of Milan’s Management Board approved the allocation of extra funding of €100,000 to research COVID-19. The amount, coming from the so-called 5x1000 fund (a percentage of income tax that Italian citizens can donate yearly to non-profit organisations), has been further increased through a call for donations which was launched on 9 March and is still ongoing. On 21 March, the approval of 7 projects was announced. The projects aim to rapidly collect data on the dynamics of coronavirus infection and on possible treatments, so that the results can be applied to control the impact of the pathogen and reduce the coronavirus mortality rate. The projects are coordinated by researchers based in different UMIL departments working in close collaboration with the university centres of the Sacco, San Paolo and Policlinico Ospedale Maggiore di Milano city hospitals.


At Sorbonne University, an exceptional budget of €500,000 has been allocated to support research that can prevent the further spread of the new coronavirus and mitigate the impact of the pandemic. To secure more funding to accelerate researchers’ efforts, Sorbonne University Foundation has called for donors to contribute to university research in five priority areas: Epidemiological studies; Translational studies; Pathophysiological studies; Clinical research and infection prevention, care and control measures in healthcare and community settings; and Ethics / Human and social sciences.


National public and private foundations are also responding to the emergency health crisis caused by the seemingly unstoppable spread of SARS-CoV-2.


Denmark’s Carlsberg Foundation has awarded three special grants dedicated to research on coronavirus. One grant went to a group of leading Danish researchers working in the field of diagnostics and vaccine development from the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Rigshospitalet and State Serum Institute (SSI). The grant, providing funding of DKK 25 million (approx. €3,35 million), will allow the research team to develop tools that can limit or even prevent similar pandemics in the future. Find out more about the project...


Whereas research into vaccines, new methods of diagnostics and treatment is paramount as the coronavirus continues to spread, funding is also offered to projects investigating the social and psychological aspects of the pandemic, which caused one of the most turbulent global crises since World War II. The Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen has also received a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation to research social behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic. The project is carried out in partnership with researchers from Aarhus University and Technical University of Denmark. Read more about the project here.


Research alliances against COVID-19

Heidelberg University scientists have set up a research and development task force called fightCOVID@Heidelberg, which comprises researchers from the two Medical Faculties and University Hospitals in Heidelberg and Mannheim, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and other scientific institutions. The task force combines a large number of research projects and initiatives related to coronavirus/COVID-19. Some of the most important issues that have been identified include the development of serological testing, as well as testing antiviral agents with a focus on existing and approved substances, e.g. antivirals or immune modulating substances. The task force brings together experts from various disciplines, including immunologists, virologists, genome researchers, psychologists and bioinformaticians. It is led by Prof. Dr Hans-Georg Kräusslich, spokesperson of the Centre of Infectious Diseases at the Heidelberg University Hospital and director of its virology division, and Prof. Dr Ralf Bartenschlager, head of the centre’s molecular virology division and research group leader at the DKFZ.


Visualising and detecting SARS-CoV-2

Other 4EU+ universities are also actively advancing the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. On 2 April, the electron microscope images of SARS-CoV-2 were released by a research group that isolated the virus from 3 patients belonging to the very first group of COVID-19 cases recorded in Lombardy at the end of February. The group, led by Massimo Galli and Gianguglielmo Zehender in collaboration with Claudia Balotta, Manuela Nebuloni and several young scientists from the University of Milan’s Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences and EpiSoMi Centre, characterized the viral genomes of the patients and carried out observations at the Infective Diseases Lab of the L. Sacco Hospital (National Reference Centre for bio-emergency).


On-request tests that detect the coronavirus infection are performed by a team led by Professor Ruth Tachezy, head of the laboratory at the Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, head of the National Reference Laboratory for Papillomaviruses and Polyomaviruses, and head of the Department of Genetics and Microbiology at the Faculty of Science at Charles University. Together with the Czech Academy of Sciences (ASCR) and Masaryk University, Charles University also offered to open its other well-equipped biological laboratories for COVID-19 testing. The joint proposal was presented to the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister, Minister of Health and Chairman of the Govt. Task Force on 17 March. Charles University’s Vice-Rector for Research, Professor Jan Konvalinka, himself a researcher at the Institute of the Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Academy of Sciences, became the main coordinator of the initiative. Read more…


In response to the pandemic, Warsaw Genomics, University of Warsaw’s spin-off company developing and delivering highly sensitive and accurate evidence-based genetic tests, has decided to suspend its regular operations and focus solely on coronavirus testing. They carry out up to 1,000 tests a day.


A unique interactive three-dimensional model of SARS-CoV-2 has been created by a private Czech firm, Corinth, in collaboration with leading Charles University researchers, among them Charles University’s Vice-Rector for Research Professor Jan Konvalinka. The map can be found on this website. On the Lifeliqe online platform, Corinth provides about 1,500 three-dimensional models and microscopic images for primary and secondary schools. The schools usually pay for most of Corinth's interactive content, but in light of the current situation the company has decided to provide free access to the SARS-CoV-2 model.


An online map developed by Heidelberg University geoinformatics scientists in cooperation with physicians from Heidelberg University Hospital provides an overview of the global clinical research activities on coronavirus and its related respiratory disease COVID-19. Based on data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the “COVID-19 Map of Hope”, which is updated regularly, shows the countries and locations where related research is taking place as well as the areas of virus and disease control in which research is being conducted. Its main purpose is to facilitate the flow of public information and enable contacts between researchers.


Academic expertise against coronavirus fake news

In times of coronavirus pandemic, as in every other crisis situation, society is particularly vulnerable to false information and fake news which abound in social media. This is why reinforcing trust in sound information backed by academic expertise is particularly important. Sorbonne University is regularly posting their researchers’ answers to the frequently asked questions on coronavirus. On 19 March, Heidelberg University published an interview with their virologists, Prof. Dr Hans-Georg Kräusslich, spokesperson of the Centre of Infectious Diseases at the Heidelberg University Hospital and Director of its virology division, and Dr Nico T. Mutters, who heads the Centre’s section for hospital and environmental hygiene. Questions answered in the interview include “How is SARS-CoV-2 transmitted?”, “How great is the danger of infection?” and “What recommendations are there for staff and students?”. Read the full article under this link.


In another interview, Prof. Dr Andreas Kruse, Director of the Institute of Gerontology at Heidelberg University, discusses the special needs of old and care-dependent people in crisis situations like the current coronavirus pandemic. He responds to important questions such as “How do the elderly face a crisis situation like the coronavirus pandemic?”, “Are there ways that family members could provide support remotely?” and “What can we learn from one another in this situation?”.