Meeting challenges through basic research

Dieses Bild zeigt eine Nahaufnahme eines Forschenden

Many scientists are currently undertaking work on the Sars-CoV-2 virus. But hundreds of projects supported by the SNSF are already contributing to finding answers to the current health crisis.

In Switzerland and around the world, the novel coronavirus has become a priority for scientific research. Projects supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) are no exception. A special call and a National Research Programme (NRP) have been launched to find solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic. But results are not expected for several months.

Yet scientists are already on the front line in managing the pandemic. They are helping policy makers make informed decisions. They are working on developing vaccines and drugs. In this effort, they rely on the skills they have honed and the deep knowledge they have acquired through basic research – even before Sars-CoV-2 became the focus of attention.

Cloning the Sars-CoV-2 virus

Some projects supported by the SNSF already target coronaviruses. A team from the Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of Bern led by Volker Thiel has been conducting research on the functioning and replication of these RNA viruses for several years. “Personally, I’ve been interested in these viruses for more than 15 years. Because some of them affect humans, I feel we need to know them better”, he says. This expertise enabled the team to quickly create a synthetic clone of the novel Sars-CoV-2 virus, a crucial step in searching for a vaccine or treatment. In another example, at the University of Washington, a postdoctoral researcher is working on developing drugs and vaccines against coronaviruses based on the more familiar Sars-CoV-1 and Mers-CoV viruses.

Other projects do not focus specifically on coronaviruses, but do help to better understand and manage the current pandemic. For example, at the University of Basel, epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft is studying the links between viruses in order to trace chains of infection. At the University of Geneva, physician Samia Hurst is addressing ethical issues related to public health policy.

Solutions to problems that do not yet exist

In the SNSF’s research database, the keyword “virus” shows up in roughly 300 recent or current projects; the keyword “epidemic” in about 200 and the keyword “pandemic” in nearly 60; some 200 projects focus on infectious diseases, and nearly 300 projects have been funded in the field of epidemiology. Additional projects have to do with the management and consequences of crises, health or otherwise.

In total, the SNSF currently supports around 1300 projects that could contribute, one way or another, to finding answers to the current health crisis or to preparing for other challenges in the health sector. And these 1300 projects represent just a small sample of Swiss scientific research. Through project funding and career support, the SNSF makes long-term investments in many areas. It provides scientists with valuable skills and knowledge. “Basic research helps to find solutions to problems that do not yet exist but that could affect us in the future”, says Matthias Egger, president of the National Research Council of the SNSF.