Switzerland hosts, funds or is involved in several research infrastructures that can provide ancillary services and greatly contribute to the fight against coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). At a time when the whole world has come to a standstill as a result of lockdowns, these infrastructures are working tirelessly and in a coordinated manner to better understand this new virus or help stem the epidemic.
#TogethervsVirus - cross-border cooperation
Wide range of possible uses for research infrastructures
One example is the use of high-energy X-ray sources, which allow the structure of matter to be determined down to the atomic level. These sources serve as ‘microscopes’ capable of revealing the structure of proteins and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. Knowing the structure of a virus and the proteins that it binds to helps to shed light on how the virus works and allows potential treatments to be tested.
Several X-ray source infrastructures currently remain open for SARS-CoV-2 experiments and provide priority access for them. These include the Swiss Light Source and the SwissFEL at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen (AG) as well as the European Synchrotron Radiation Source in Grenoble (ESRF). Other infrastructures, in particular the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, are currently adapting their installations, which will enable these infrastructures to effectively contribute to SARS-CoV-2 research as soon as the installations are placed back in service.
Data collection and data analysis play a key role
Many international research infrastructures post qualitative data and expertise needed for research on the SARS-CoV-2 virus on specific data platforms. Some examples are presented below. For a general overview, please refer to the European Covid-19 Data Portal.
To advance Covid-19 research, the Swiss National Super Computing Center (CSCS) is providing scientists with access to its supercomputers. The CSCS, part of ETH Zurich and located in Lugano, has one of the world's most powerful supercomputers at its disposal.
The Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) is providing special data services in worldwide efforts to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and expertise in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, it provides compilations of qualitatively assessed and cross-referenced data from relevant studies and scientific literature on Covid-19 research. In addition, the SIB also provides analytical tools for the epidemiological course of the pandemic as well as planning tools to predict public health scenarios for dealing with Covid-19. These efforts are coordinated at European level by the ELIXIR network.
Based in Heidelberg, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) provides its members (incl. Switzerland and other countries) with software programs that allow various datasets at varying levels of aggregation, validation and/or completeness to be used across national borders, thus tapping into synergy potential.
The Swiss Clinical Trial Organisation (SCTO) is a partner organisation of the research network European Clinical Research Infrastructure Network (ECRIN ERIC). The SCTO helps Swiss researchers to design and conduct national clinical trials and, now increasingly, international multicentre studies involving several research institutions in various countries. SCTO is part of the European ECRIN ERIC network. ECRIN has established its own Covid-19 Task Force. With the newly created metadata repository (Clinical Research Metadata Repository), ECRIN seeks to improve the data situation for clinical studies in general and specifically for Covid-oriented clinical studies.
The Swiss Biobanking Platform (SBP) acts as a national reference platform for biological resources and their systematic recording in all research areas. Currently, SBP is used to collect specific natural resources, expertise and knowledge related to Covid-19. As a member of the European Research Consortium Biobanking and BioMolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI ERIC), SBP is also in close contact with the European research community and its Covid-19 activities.
Extensive scientific and technical expertise
In addition to their research skills, the major infrastructures draw from a vast pool of scientific and technical expertise, which is put to good use in the fight against the virus. CERN in Geneva now produces large quantities of hand sanitisers for local rescue teams. CERN's expertise and equipment also enable it to manufacture protective masks or develop artificial respirators. The designs of the respirators will be published under an open licence, allowing them to be reproduced at low cost and adapted to local regulations. However, European countries are not alone in leveraging research infrastructure in the fight against coronavirus: in South Africa, coordination of development of artificial respirators has been entrusted to one of the partners in the Square Kilometre Array giant international telescope project, partly due to its expertise in project management but also because of its particularly well-adapted industrial network.
European and international Covid-19 activities
Horizon 2020 - ad-hoc calls for project proposals
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the European Commission has launched several specific initiatives under Horizon 2020. These concern epidemiology, outbreak prevention and control, development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, as well as infrastructure and resources.
As of early May, three subsequent ad hoc calls for project proposals have been issued. The first was issued as part of the Horizon 2020 Health Research Programme, which will fund 17 projects, six of which involving seven Swiss research institutes. A second call for project proposals was issued as part of the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) programme as a public-private partnership involving the pharmaceutical industry. The third call was issued by the European Innovation Council (EIC).
In addition, there was discussion of a multilateral contribution of EUR 50 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) via the Horizon 2020 work programme.
A further EUR 25.25 million has also been allocated to the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), also through Horizon 2020. Here, the EU, 16 African countries and 14 European countries are working together to fund research to combat infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, the EU is planning to provide further funding:
- EUR 450 million for the development of scientific solutions to test, treat and prevent coronavirus and consolidate health systems (including an additional contribution to CEPI)
- EUR 400 million for financial products of the European Investment Bank (Access to Risk Finance for InnovFin Infectious Diseases)
- EUR 150 million for start-up funding of innovations (European Innovation Council's Accelerator).
European Open Science Cloud with pilot project
The European Commission has set up a European Covid-19 data portal together with partner organisations. This will allow the European and global research community to quickly collect and share research data from various sources. The joint initiative is a priority pilot project to achieve the goals of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC).
Corona Action Plan for the European Research Area
EU member states and associated countries coordinate their research and innovation cooperation activities in the fight against the coronavirus in order to create synergies within the European research community. In early April, the ministers responsible for research and innovation adopted a Corona Action Plan for the European Research Area ('ERAvsCorona Action Plan') in a video conference. Switzerland was represented by SERI Director Martina Hirayama. Switzerland supports the measures of the ERAvsCorona Action Plan as part of its participation in the European Research Area.
The Corona Action Plan establishes a framework for the coordination of various research and innovation activities in the European Research Area. It comprises a total of ten measures, which will be implemented primarily through existing Horizon 2020 programme sections and initiatives. The Corona Action Plan will be updated by the European Commission in consultation with EU member states and associated countries.
The European Commission has set up three working groups to further discuss implementation of the measures listed in the Corona Action Plan. SERI currently represents Switzerland in these working groups.
The ERA corona platform is one of the ten measures agreed in the ‘ERAvsCorona’ action plan. The platform serves as a key contact point providing comprehensive information on funding opportunities related to coronavirus at European and national level. In cooperation with country delegations, the platform contains a separate section for national activities, funding opportunities, initiatives and projects in EU member states, other European countries and Switzerland.
Part of the package of measures was also the successful organisation of a Pan-EU hackathon at the end of April. Around 21,000 participants from over 140 countries, including Switzerland, competed together to develop innovative solutions in the fight against the corona virus. More than 2,000 proposals were submitted from a wide range of application areas. Swiss participants were involved in several of the prize-winning entries.
#UnitedAgainstCoronavirus - Coronavirus Global Response
The European Union and its partners launched an international pledging marathon (donor conference) on 4 May, which will run until the end of May. At least EUR 7 billion will be allocated to the joint development and worldwide provision of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines against coronavirus. President Simonetta Sommaruga, took part in the opening ceremony. Switzerland announced that it would contribute CHF 350 million in funding.
New Coronavirus - Information from SERI
This online special report will provide regularly updated information on the effects that the coronavirus pandemic has had on various SERI activities.
Project register on Covid research
The Swiss National Science Foundation has created a project register on Covid research, which was launched in May (should go online from mid-May). This register will keep track of all third-party funded research carried out by the SNSF, Innosuisse and in relation to EU projects.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) monitors Covid activities in individual countries, including Switzerland.