How the European Union funds research on COVID-19

Mattia Ceracchi

On January 30, as the COVID-19 update counted 7,824 infected people and 170 deaths worldwide and recorded the first confirmed cases in Europe (today, there are more than 1.2 million infected and more than 70,000 coronavirus deaths worldwide), the European Commission had already allocated €10 million from the emergency health research fund under the Horizon 2020 programme to support research on the new epidemic.

This extraordinary call – the budget has now increased from €10 million to €48 million – has enabled the Commission to very quickly select 18 research projects and fund 140 research teams using the European budget. The research teams are now working to understand the pandemic’s progress through epidemiological investigations and data modelling processes, to develop faster diagnostic tools, to test innovative treatments and a possible vaccine.

This was the first of several funding lines activated by the European Union to support research on COVID-19. The money comes directly from the European budget and, in particular, from Horizon 2020, the Union’s research and innovation programme that funds projects worth over € 10 billion every year. It supports the best research groups in Europe through competitive calls for proposals, making available funds that are often crucial to advance European research, especially in those countries (such as Italy) where public and private investment in research and development is historically low.

Among the 18 consortia awarded in the first extraordinary call for proposals is Exscalate4CoV (E4C), an Italian-driven project (led by Milan’s pharmaceutical company Dompé farmaceutici), which aims to integrate the potential of supercomputing with the best scientific expertise in the field of life sciences, in order to deal with pandemic situations as quickly as possible. A pillar of the project – as reported by the website of the Cineca University Consortium, the main computing centre in Italy and another strong partner of E4C – is Exscalate, the supercomputing system with a database of 500 billion molecules able to test more than three million molecules per second (thus,  identifying  the most promising drugs for the treatment of COVID-19).

The call published at the end of January is not the only one funded by the European budget. At the beginning of March, the Joint Undertaking Innovative Medicine Initiative 2 – the public-private partnership established between the Commission and the European pharmaceutical industry – published an extraordinary call (closed on March 31), which aims to support projects developing treatments and diagnostics to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and to increase preparedness for possible future epidemics. The overall investment for this call is €90 million, half of which is made available by the Commission through Horizon 2020, and the other half by in-kind contributions from IMI2 pharmaceutical partners.

The latest call of the European Innovation Council (EIC) – the Horizon 2020 instrument dedicated to innovative start-ups and SMEs from any technology sector – received more than a thousand applications from start-ups and SMEs with innovations relating to preventing the impact and spread of COVID-19 (these proposals will now have to compete, along with thousands more, to  be awarded the € 164 million share allocated to this EIC funding round).

In addition to the funding awarded through competitive calls, the Commission, taking an unusual step, offered support of €80 million to CureVac, a German biotech company developing innovative vaccines. The stated aim is to accelerate the development and production of a vaccine against COVID-19 (CureVac had already won the EU innovation inducement prize of €2 million in 2014, and this has undoubtedly helped to provide a basis for this Commission’s decision).

Technically, the support will come in the form of an EU guarantee of a European Investment Bank loan, in the framework of the InnovFin “Infectious Disease Finance Facility”. The Commission’s move is doubly important, not only because of the amount of funding made available, but also as it follows the news (officially denied by Curevac itself, but confirmed by several sources) of the proposal by the U.S. government to buy from the German company the patent on the COVID-19 vaccine (still to be tested) for a billion dollars, but for exclusive use limited to U.S. territory.

A short story that shows how the European budget line can be used not only to fund researchers and innovators, but also to defend the EU’s strategic interests.

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