Broad-based Swiss Covid-19 research
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) supported a total of 114 Covid-19 research projects, for which it used funding of over CHF 45 million.
In the National Research Programme «Covid-19» (NRP 78), around 200 researchers are working in 28 projects with a total budget of CHF 20 million. Another research programme on Covid-19 is about to start.
It was the first time the SNSF built up research infrastructures in such a short period because of an acute crisis, allowing it to quickly launch and appropriately support urgent research projects. With the special call on coronaviruses in March 2020 and the launch of the National Research Programme «Covid-19» (NRP 78) in April 2020, the SNSF created a framework for coronavirus research to optimally support Swiss researchers within a very short time.
Rolling planning and ongoing results
The researchers easily overcame the challenge of starting projects faster than usual. They struggled more with the extremely dynamic research field and with logistical and staffing problems, some of which were linked to the lockdowns. In addition, many questions, such as around Long Covid disease, only arose during the pandemic. "It was a pleasure to see how new research collaborations formed worldwide to answer these questions. We were also impressed by the creativity and agility of the researchers in this competitive environment, with which they continue to meet new challenges," says Nicolas Rodondi, professor at the Bern Institute of Primary Health Care (BIHAM) and member of the National Research Council of the SNSF.
Broad spectrum from basic research to clinical trials
In the early phase of the pandemic, epidemiological and monitoring projects provided important findings for the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, for example on the transmissibility of the virus, the mobility behaviour of the population during the lockdown, or the weekly analyses on the acceptance of protective measures. This allowed the Federal Council to adapt its recommendations accordingly. Another early milestone was the development of an inexpensive mass test by a research group at EPF Lausanne, which made it possible for the first time to detect Covid-19-specific antibodies in broad population groups. "Thanks to these tests, we were able to obtain information on the spread of the virus in kindergartens," Isabella Eckerle from the University Hospital of Geneva explains. EAWAG Dübendorf's wastewater monitoring, which very precisely measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 viruses in water bodies, was a resounding success. After the initial research phase, the monitoring has now been extended to over a hundred sites.
Important findings from the biomedical field include the special exposure and different courses among children, the cognitive and neuropsychological effects on mental health in adults, and the recognition of Long Covid as a health problem that is still not sufficiently understood. Numerous clinical trials attempted to test agents indicated for other illnesses in Covid-19 patients. Though some successful approaches could be developed, there were also study discontinuations, as the strategies pursued proved ineffective.
Research creates solutions: development of sensors and vaccines
Concrete results of research projects include a sensor developed by researchers at ETH Zurich that uses a newly developed method to filter aerosols containing Sars-CoV-2 from the air, as well as a biosensor that measures the concentration of viruses in the indoor air of nursing homes and hospitals and triggers the corresponding warnings.
Several research projects are dedicated to the development of new corona vaccines. Vaccine pioneer Steve Pascolo from the University Hospital Zurich, for example, wants to refine and further develop the proven mRNA approaches. Volker Thiel from the University of Bern wants to make a live vaccine available as a nasal spray. Only the clinical phases will show whether and which of these approaches will make it through to approval. "Without cooperation with industry, a race like this cannot be won," says Volker Thiel, whose project is at the beginning of clinical phase I. Cooperation with industry makes it possible to test vaccine candidates in clinical trials and provide the infrastructure for vaccine production and distribution.
Positive interim assessment
Marcel Salathé is an epidemiology professor at EPF Lausanne and president of the NRP 78 Steering Committee. After two years of research, his own assessment of the programme so far is positive. "Despite high pressure and sometimes difficult working conditions, coronavirus researchers in Switzerland have presented impressive results," he says. "Since the virus is going to stay with us, research must be continued with high priority." The research projects in NRP 78 will continue until the end of June 2023. Research in the National Research Programme "Covid-19 in Society" (NRP 80) will start in December 2022. The programme's projects investigate the societal dimensions, processes and measures involved in dealing with pandemics.
National Research Programme «Covid-19» (NRP 78)
NRP 78, conducted by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), aims to gain new insights into Covid-19 and the further development of the pandemic, to formulate recommendations for clinical management and public health, and to support the development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.
Four modules explore aspects of the biology, pathogenicity and immunogenicity of SARS-CoV-2; new approaches to Covid-19 epidemiology and prevention; the scientific bases for vaccines, drugs and diagnostics; and innovative clinical approaches and therapeutic interventions to treat Covid-19.
Research in NRP 78 started in autumn 2020 and will last two and a half years. It has a budget of CHF 20 million. From the 190 applications submitted, the SNSF selected 28 research projects in July 2020, the results of which are to be published as quickly as possible, accompanied by communication activities and discussions with politicians and the public at large.