Universities’ rapid research response to COVID-19 crisis

Universities, research institutions and funding agencies in the Nordic countries have moved rapidly to launch COVID-19 research projects to help address the pandemic. And at Stockholm University chemists are working intensively to help provide sanitising equipment to the hospitals.

In Denmark, the New Carlsberg Foundation has donated DKK90 million (US$13 million) “to accelerate efforts against COVID-19”:

• DKK25 million is being donated to a scientific group of internationally renowned virus researchers in a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the State Serum Institute.

• DKK25 million is being donated to a social science and humanities group of behavioural researchers who, in a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark, will research how we as a society handle epidemics most effectively.

• DKK10 million is being donated to an interdisciplinary group at Roskilde University that will research the outbreak, spread and cessation of historical epidemics.

The three projects will pave the way for new, global insights into behaviour, prevention, diagnosis and treatment for COVID-19 preparedness and future epidemics.

Some DKK30 million will be spent on restarting crisis-affected art museums in Denmark. Many art museums are temporarily closed on instructions from the authorities as a result of COVID-19, and the New Carlsberg Foundation has decided to provide funding to art museums for the implementation of programmes that will draw guests back to museums when they reopen.

One grant is going to one of Denmark’s leading researchers in behaviour and political psychology, Professor of Political Science Michael Bang Petersen at Aarhus University. With the project ‘HOPE – How Democracies Cope with COVID-19: A data-driven approach’, he will work with a research team to investigate how society acts during crises, as well as how democracies deal with an epidemic such as COVID-19.

“It is today’s behaviour that determines the development of the infection curve in two weeks. Public behaviour thus plays a crucial role in our ability to overcome the coronavirus epidemic,” Petersen said.

“The HOPE project offers unique support for the battle against the epidemic by providing deep insight into public behaviour, and at the same time this data becomes invaluable when we subsequently have to assess which actions were unsuccessful and which ones succeeded. So the ambition of the HOPE project is not only to help here and now, but also to prepare society for the next epidemic.”

Emergency call in Norway

In Norway, the Research Council of Norway announced on 6 March a “COVID-19 Emergency Call for Proposals”, asking for project outlines for research proposals concerning the fight against coronavirus disease with a 10-day deadline to deliver such outlines. These would be evaluated for projects being selected for the second round of the application. Some NOK90 million (US$8 million) was set aside for this call.

The response from 36 Norwegian universities, hospitals and research institutions was intense, producing 113 project outlines.

Chief Executive of the Research Council of Norway John-Arne Røttingen told University World News: “In an international health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic we need to do ‘real time research’. We need to learn as we walk.

“The World Health Organization has through its R&D blueprint developed a joint global roadmap for research and innovation to address the most pressing knowledge needs. National research funders should contribute to filling these knowledge maps and coordinate their efforts.

“The GloPID-R network of funders (Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness) is a good mechanism for ensuring such coordination. It is in particular important that countries collaborate in developing and evaluating new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. For the latter, a global coordination and financing mechanism, CEPI or Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, plays a key role.”

The largest number of proposals was sent in from the University of Oslo, filing 14 project outlines. One of these is from Professor of Biology Nils Chr Stenseth, who is internationally recognised for finding how the bacteria leading to the Black Death or Great Bubonic Plague in the 13th century found its way from fleas on rats in Kazakhstan to merchants bringing them with them on ships to Europe.

He told Uniforum, the University of Oslo newspaper, that he has put together a “dream team” with researchers from Norway, China, the United States and the United Kingdom. The researchers he has been in contact with have been working with epidemics all over the world. Stenseth said that if he is selected, he will address the issue of how the coronavirus has been spread geographically.

Stenseth said that he will not compare the coronavirus pandemic with the Black Death but states that it is just as contagious, but not as deadly.

He told University World News: “If we are to understand the dynamics of how the disease spread in time and space, we need to know how the virus spread from nature into the human population, as well as spreading from one person to another.”

Social outreach in Stockholm

Meanwhile, chemists at Stockholm University in Sweden have worked day and night to provide health workers at Swedish hospitals with sanitiser equipment.

Just over 200 litres of newly produced hand sanitiser, plastic gloves, face masks and other items in high demand comprise the first consignment of disposable items, assembled by Stockholm University chemists to be delivered to hospitals to help meet current urgent healthcare needs in the wake of the spread of COVID-19.

Matilda Ernkrans, the Swedish minister of higher education and research, in a tweet, described it as an “important initiative” and urged other universities to follow Stockholm University’s example.