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1 July 2020

How can frontier science help fight the current COVID-19 outbreak? To find out, we talked to a range of ERC grantees who are working in the fields of molecular biology, virology, immunology, epidemiology, and network science. As it turns out, much of their work can be applied to the current situation and could help understand, predict and contain the outbreak.

We will add more news on ERC-funded research as they become available.

ERC actions on COVID-19

List of ERC-funded research projects related to coronavirus, epidemiology and virology as well as other relevant disciplines


High-quality filtering material for the local fabrication of masks

Johanna H. Meijer, Professor, Leiden University Medical Center, Netherlands

I am a neurophysiologist, and my ERC-funded research explores how artificial light influences the biological clocks of all living creatures and how we can improve the lives of people most vulnerable to, for instance, depression, fatigue and shift work. Once the coronavirus crisis broke out, I decided to temporarily shift my research focus and contribute to the health crisis response. 



Developing a new tool to diagnose Covid-19

Matthew Gibson, Professor, University of Warwick, UK

I am a chemist and my ERC-funded research uses chemistry to address biomaterial challenges, particularly related to cell storage. When coronavirus broke out, we immediately decided to apply our skills and to use our chemistry tools to address the Covid-19 challenge.



How the coronavirus damages the lungs

Danny Jonigk, Professor, Hanover Medical School (MHH), Germany

I am a pathologist and my ERC-funded research aims to understand, prevent and ultimately cure a particular group of pulmonary diseases, which lead to loss of lung function via fibrosis and are often deadly – the so-called non-neoplastic lung diseases.



How are older people coping with lockdown?

Louise Meijering, Associate Professor, University of Groningen, Netherlands

My team and I are trying to understand mobility in later life and how it impacts wellbeing. We look at the daily movements of elderly people, both inside and outside their homes - small things, like cleaning the house, gardening, but also driving or walking to the shops. We also focus on elderly people with dementia or who have suffered a stroke. We’re studying what obstacles impact mobility, be it physical obstacles like curbs, bad roads, stairs, but also social like not having anyone to help out. The point is to discover strategies that people use to overcome these problems.



Modeling human behavior to predict the course of the pandemic

Niel Hens, Professor, University of Antwerp and Hasselt University 

I am a biostatistician and my research revolves around the development of mathematical and statistical methods that provide insight into the spread of infectious diseases.



Bat research may lead to new treatments for COVID-19

Bats are extraordinary animals. They are the only mammals that can fly and they live about ten times longer than expected for their body size. They can also tolerate and live with many viruses that kill humans, including a type of a beta-coronavirus very similar to SARS-CoV-2. In fact, scientists speculate that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in bats.

ERC-funded researcher Emma Teeling of the University College Dublin works on trying to understand the secrets of bats’ longevity and their immune response that allow them to tolerate coronaviruses and other pathogens. The tools and insights she developed during her ERC project are turning out to be vital in the fight against COVID-19 and could lead to the development of new treatments in the future.



Stopping coronavirus at the gate

Nuria Montserrat, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, Spain

In my lab at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), funded by an ERC grant, we create kidney organoids using human stem cells to investigate kidney disease and explore the effects of treatment. Using these mini organs, that have all the characteristics of a real organ, we are currently studying how the coronavirus SARS-Co-V2 interacts with and infects kidney cells. In early April, with other scientists from Austria, Canada and Sweden, we identified a drug that blocks the infection at the early stages of the replication cycle of the virus in these mini-organ cultures.



Firm facts – how the diagnostics industry is responding to the coronavirus pandemic

Stuart Hogarth, Lecturer in Sociology of Science and Technology at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge

I am the principal investigator of the ERC-funded CancerScreen project, which examines the political economy of diagnostic innovation. Over the last three years my research team has built a database of the global molecular diagnostics industry, i.e. firms producing diagnostic tests which use DNA or RNA as the analyte.



A rapid diagnostic test inspired by fireflies

Maarten Merkx, Full Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering of Eindhoven University of Technology

I am a chemist and my research explores how light-emitting proteins can be used to detect disease by detecting antibodies in the blood. When a person has virus antibodies, it means that they already had the disease - information which could be very useful in containing the spread of the diseases such as COVID-19.



A key step for vaccine development

Lars Dölken, Würzburg University, Germany

I hold the chair of virology at Würzburg University and I am the head of virology diagnostics there. Following the coronavirus outbreak, our institute is the major test site for COVID-19 in the city of Würzburg and the surrounding area. We are currently testing about 500 samples a day. 



Searching for SARS-CoV-2 weak spot

Caroline Goujon is an Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) researcher. She works at the Institut de Recherche en Infectiologie de Montpellier (IRIM), a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) / Montpellier University institute.

France is currently under lockdown. Researchers and staff from CNRS and INSERM laboratories have been asked to work from home, unless they work on a COVID-19-related project or have essential tasks that can’t be stopped. We have quickly decided, together with other researchers from our institute, the IRIM, to focus our efforts for the next few weeks on the SARS-CoV-2, which is at the origin of the current pandemic.



COVID-19 parenting tips

The confinement measures introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting parents and children around the world. An estimated 1.5 billion children are currently out of education or day care, unable to see their friends or take part in group activities. Some parents are facing a period of unemployment, while others are juggling remote working with childcare and home schooling. 



A mobile app to diagnose COVID-19

Cecilia Mascolo, Full Professor of Mobile Systems and Co-director of the Centre for Mobile, Wearable Systems and Augmented Intelligence, University of Cambridge, UK

I am a computer scientist interested in mobile health, an emergent field in our ever-increasing digital world. Advances in technology make it possible to use mobile phones, tablets and smart watches to monitor patients in real time, collect medical data, and deliver information to patients, practitioners and researchers.



Informed policymaking against COVID-19

Andrea Galeotti, Professor, London Business School, UK and Paolo Surico, Professor, London Business School, UK

Andrea Galeotti: My ERC grant is about networks. I try to understand interconnections between firms and individuals that take economic decisions which impact others as well. A key question I try to answer is how decision makers can formulate targeted interventions based on heterogeneity in interconnection across economic agents to achieve their goal effectively. Before the pandemic I applied those questions to industrial organisation and digital markets.



HIV research helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic

Pia Dosenovic, Assistant Professor, Karolinska Institute, Sweden

Vaccination gives us protection against pathogens thanks to our B cells – a type of white blood cells that produce antibodies. My ERC-funded research project focuses on understanding how B cells obtain specific qualities needed to protect against HIV-1 and other viruses.



Epidemics: Learning from the past

Barbara Bramanti, University of Oslo/University of Ferrara

Our ERC project explored mechanisms of plague transmission to explain how plague spread in medieval times. Nineteenth century scholars discovered that rats and rat fleas could transmit plague to humans but there were some inconsistencies in that infection model. We tested the human-to-human transmission model mediated by human parasites (fleas and lice) with statistical analyses and proved that it is plausible. This finding can also be of help nowadays to tackle plague adequately. We observed how the Third Plague Pandemic in 1894 stopped in Europe at the middle of last century, in concomitance with the introduction of insecticide, but also of private baths, washing machines, the vacuum cleaner and other means to enforce personal and environmental hygiene. In other parts of the world, where reservoirs (e.g. infected wild rodents and their flees) are present, sporadic episodes of infection or epidemics are still recorded every year.



Network medicine and the social network of the epidemic

Albert-László Barabási, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary and Northeastern University, US

How can network science help us control epidemics? All the models currently used to predict the spread of the virus, as well as to test effective interventions, are based on network science. The virus spreads through the social network, and via the travel network.



Trial of a possible COVID19 prophylactic treatment

Dr Oriol Mitjà, Fight AIDS and Infectious Diseases Foundation, Spain

Dr Mitjà is leading a trial of COVID19 antiviral treatment and prophylaxis.

The COVID-19 emergency warrants the urgent development of new strategies to protect high-risk people, close contacts and health-care workers. The reason is that those infected, in 14 days, will on average pass the virus to 15% - 20% of their contacts. Our current clinical trials exploit the same strategy we use in the ERC project on syphilis. We are trying to repurpose the drugs, which have already been approved, commercialised and are on the market, for the use against this coronavirus. We use in vitro and animal model data to find the best, cheapest and safest drugs, and then to test them in human clinical trials.



Using computational models to predict the spread of coronavirus

Vittoria Colizza, ERC grantee, computational epidemiologist and research director at INSERM

Due to the increasing mobility of people on a global scale, infectious diseases now spread rapidly and frequently reach epidemic, and in the case of the current COVID-19 virus, even pandemic proportions. How can the spread of such epidemics be better predicted, anticipated and controlled?



Fighting the disinformation pandemic

Covid-19 is keeping people indoors, forcing us to social distance to try and contain the virus SARS-CoV-2. But while we sit at home, another aspect of this diseaseis proving rather "viral".



Developing SARS-CoV-2 antiviral drugs

Marcin Nowotny, Group Leader, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, Poland

'We are a molecular biology group at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw. In our work, we predominantly use two methods: protein crystallography and recently also cryo-electron microscopy. The two methods allow us to visualise molecules which are the gears of each living cell at the level of single atoms. This in turn allows us to understand how these molecules function in health and disease.



The basic science of immunity

Aleksandra Walczak, Research Director, Centre national de la recherche scientifique, France

'I’m a physicist and I study the adaptive immune system. This is the army of cells that protects us from attacks, for example from viruses. They have specialised receptors that can recognise and respond to different pathogens. We have around the same number of receptors as there are people on the planet, and the composition of the cells with different receptors changes throughout our life. It’s a dynamic, complex system that can only be understood statistically.