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Latest COVID-19 News: R&D Funding Boost, Research Culture, and University Finances


May 11, 2020 | 8 min read |

Sarah Richardson, Group Editor, Research Professional News

Research into vaccines, diagnostic tests and therapeutics to combat the COVID-19 pandemic received an $8 billion funding boost last week thanks to a global fundraising drive hosted by the European Commission.

European nations are contributing $4bn to the fund, including $1bn via the European Union’s Horizon 2020 R&D program. Donations have also come from other nations, global organisations and individuals—including a $1 million ray of light from pop star Madonna.

The Commission has been rightly praised for its success in marshaling this support for research efforts to tackle COVID-19, after concern about a lack of international leadership on the issue.

Research leaders have been quick to welcome the funds, but have also warned that care must be taken to ensure they are allocated quickly, effectively and equitably. Jeremy Farrar, head of biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust, which was a partner for the fundraising event, said funding “needs to be made available immediately for the urgent research that is needed”.

The money will be passed to three new partnerships to advance work on vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Each will be run “relatively autonomously” by teams of biomedical charities, the Commission said.

International charities the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation will act as co-conveners for the partnership for vaccines. Biomedical funders Unitaid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust will do the same for therapies. The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics and the Global Fund will take diagnostics.

The charities will work with industry, research organisations, regulators, funders and other international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, to ensure funds reach those best able to use them. You can read more on this story here.

Below is a round-up of more of the latest headlines on the impact of the pandemic on higher education, research policy and funding, from our Research Professional News service.


COVID-19 has seen changes to research culture and process “that would normally take years happen in weeks”, say Daniel Hook and Simon Porter, chief executive and director of innovation respectively at Digital Science. They examine some of the measures taken so far in this exclusive comment piece for Research Professional News.

Medicines agencies around the world have agreed they must better align their pre- and post-authorization regulatory requirements so that decentralized trials of COVID-19 treatments can progress at top speed.

United States

Education secretary Betsy DeVos announced that nearly $1.4 billion in extra funding would be directed to universities serving minority and disadvantaged students via the Cares Act, which is providing financial support to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a consortium to set standards for, and enable the sharing of, data on genomes from the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. The federally led efforts follow non-profit and open-source projects, such as GISAID and Nextstrain, which have been enabling the rapid, global sharing of viral genomes since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC said its own efforts would “submit all useful sequence data into public repositories”, such as GISAID.


World-renowned Belgian virologist Peter Piot has been appointed special adviser on COVID-19 to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

The next EU R&D program, Horizon Europe, is set to be “reinforced” as part of changes to the EU’s proposed 2021-27 budget that are intended to help the bloc recover from COVID-19, according to an apparently leaked European Commission document.

But COVID-19 could cause total EU R&D spending to decline by many billions of euros in 2020, with the drop being potentially much higher than initially estimated.

In France, a group of 155 researchers has published a petition voicing concern over the government’s plans to track the movements of citizens.

Trust in science has reached record levels during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey of 1,000 people in Germany.

The Irish government has established a temporary national research ethics committee to accelerate ethics reviews for all COVID-19 related research activity in Ireland.


The government has announced details of its much-anticipated support package for the higher education sector, which has been financially poleaxed by the coronavirus pandemic. The support package includes bringing forward to this academic year £100m of quality-related research funding in England.

The response to the package has been lukewarm at best. Chris Skidmore, a Conservative MP and former minister for universities and science, says that £100m in R&D funding may not be what the sector was hoping for in terms of help to tackle the impact of the pandemic on research—but it remains a promising start.

As impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown spread through the academic community, some of the major funders of research in the UK are seeing an uptick in queries about no-cost grant extensions.

Public funding agency UK Research and Innovation has signed a joint statement committing to the rapid and widespread sharing of research data and findings relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former chief scientific adviser David King has announced an “independent” Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies as the official group faces growing complaints over secrecy.

Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson has quit his role as a government adviser on coronavirus after a woman reportedly visited his home twice during lockdown.

In a move to tackle controversy over the allocation of university places to students during the pandemic, regulator the Office for Students could impose fines of more than £500,000 if universities make any “unfair” offers of places to students. There are questions over the potential unintended consequences of its proposals, with one expert describing them as “frightening”.

The Scottish government has announced a £75m funding package for Scotland’s universities to help protect their research during the pandemic. The Scottish government has also announced 50 rapid response studies at 15 universities worth almost £5m to research ways to tackle coronavirus.

Zoos and aquariums affected by the pandemic have been offered access to a £14m support fund by the government, while plans to scrap VAT on electronic publications, including academic journals, have been fast-tracked and are now in place.

Privacy is “at the heart” of a new COVID-19 contact-tracing app, its NHS makers have insisted, after researchers voiced concerns over the security of the technology.

Australia and New Zealand

The University of New England in regional New South Wales says demand for online short courses in areas such as health management has rapidly increased in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand’s education minister Chris Hipkins has announced a relief fund to help tertiary students continue studies that have been disrupted by COVID-19 closures and restrictions.

Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria, has announced a relief package to help international students in the state who are affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

Health data systems researchers should work with New Zealand’s award-winning national airline to develop more efficient technology systems to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, a University of Otago academic has said.


Some research activities are taking place in locked-down South Africa, with permits offered for essential business on a case-by-case basis. But as the lockdown levels lift it is unclear what qualifies and when urgent research can start again.

South Africa’s higher education minister has admitted that half the country’s universities might not finish the 2020 academic year. Blade Nzimande was speaking at a joint virtual news conference with the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, on 30 April.

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