Tackling Covid-19 – the role of European research

28 March 2022
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An analysis of academic publications of the last two years shows that the EU is the third most frequently acknowledged funding source for COVID-19 related research. A report from an ERC monitoring specialist, Alexis-Michel Mugabushaka, breaks down where and how it took effect.

Only 26 months have passed since the end of 2020, when the WHO Country Office in China picked up the first media reports of "a viral pneumonia" and it is only about 24 months since the genetic sequence of the virus was publicly shared.

Researchers accumulated knowledge about the virus and the disease at an unprecedented pace, developed vaccines, found cures, and advised on containments measures. Their contribution to tackling the pandemic builds on advances made by researchers over a period of several decades. These advances were possible because of investments in research and innovation made by several research funders, including the European Union.

An analysis of academic publications of the last two years shows that the EU is the third most frequently acknowledged funding source for COVID-19 related research, after the US Department of Health and Human Services and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

EU supported 3,000 papers on COVID-19 research

The previous two EU research funding programmes - the 7th Framework Programmes for Research, and Horizon 2020 - supported around 3,000 papers on COVID-19 research. Many of these were produced by grantees of European Research Council (ERC), second only to the FP7 and Horizon 2020 specific health programmes. Overall, around 80% of the papers identified were supported by the Health Programme, the ERC and the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions.

The publications come from several research disciplines: the fields with most publications are virology, cell biology, genetics, and biochemistry. Other noticeable areas are environmental (health) areas, zoology, and nanotechnology.

The report also offers some qualitative insights on the instrumental role that the EU funding has played in tacking the pandemic. Examples include:

  • The development of the first diagnostic tool, published almost immediately after the release of the Sars-cov2 virus genome
  • The findings of epidemiological studies, which have been used in WHO clinical guidelines and other guidance documents.
  • The seminal role played by EU funding in tacking previous coronavirus outbreaks, in particular MERS-CoV

The report presents also finding from previous analysis, which shows for instance that:

  • The EU contributed a third of the funding for the development of Chadox technology on which the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is based (ranking first among listed funders)
  • The EU research funding programmes significantly supported the early stages of the mRNA vaccine research of Professor Ugur Sahin. The report identified 10 grants from FP6, FP7 and Horizon 2020 totalling about €10.7 Million. They include a 600k grant from the EUs programme FP6, a €4.5 Million grant to the startup BioNTech (that brought the Pfizer vaccine to market), from the Health Programme and an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 Mio € from H2020.

The analysis uses openly available datasets such as publications from EU-funded projects. They were linked to a dataset of publications on Covid-19 and related viruses. The objective was to analyse the main characteristics of EU-funded publications related to Covid-19 and also to identify notable discoveries to which EU funding has contributed.

The report documents the early achievements of the EU research funding in addressing the pandemic. It shows that, despite its limitations, the methodological approach chosen (linking openly available datasets) was found to be versatile and relatively adaptable to other topics.

This article is based on the findings of the report: Meeting the pandemic challenges Contribution of EU R&I funding to COVID-19 related research