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MRC response to COVID-19

4 May 2021



The coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted our research community and MRC staff, many of whom have a critical role to play in tackling this crisis.

This page contains regularly updated information about how we are supporting COVID-19 research, examples of what MRC researchers are doing to address the crisis (including at our Institutes, Units and Centres), and MRC resources that may be useful to our community.

COVID-19 response Interim Report

The main activities undertaken by MRC and its community of researchers in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, along with an overview of the early impacts arising from these activities are summarised in the COVID-19 response interim report (PDF, 2.19MB) produced by MRC’s Evaluation and Analysis Team.

Support for Your Research

The UKRI Coronavirus Hub has the latest information on the vital work taking place across UKRI in response to the crisis, including how we are supporting research.

All information about applying for new grant funding for COVID-19 research is available here.

Existing research and applying after COVID-19 disruption

UKRI recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities. We are committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their career(s) such as breaks and delays, disruptive working patterns and conditions, the loss of on-going work, and role changes that may have been caused by the pandemic.

Reviewers and panel members will be advised to consider the unequal impacts that COVID-19-related disruption might have had on the track record and career development of those individuals included in the proposal and will be asked to consider the capability of the applicant and their wider team to deliver the research they are proposing. Where disruptions have occurred applicants can highlight this within their application, if they wish, but there is no requirement to detail the specific circumstances that caused the disruption.

Read UKRI’s Guidance for applicants, students and award-holders impacted by the pandemic

How MRC is responding

MRC appreciates the particular challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for the medical research community and assumes all researchers have been affected. If you have an active MRC grant or fellowship there are options to help you, including requesting a no cost extension. Wherever possible we will approve extensions of up to one year for awards that were active during the pandemic. Contact us about managing your award.

When it comes to your next application, we have updated our guidance for applicants to encourage you to briefly describe how you have been impacted by COVID-19 and specifically how this relates to your proposed research. This could include dates of lab closures, shielding activities, home schooling responsibilities and delivering undergraduate courses online.

We have updated our guidance for peer reviewers to remind them to provide a balanced assessment in the context of individual circumstances described by applicants.

Applicants can be confident that the disruptive and unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be considered in the overall assessment of each application by MRC Boards and Panels. We will be monitoring the outcome of these support actions and continuing to engage with Research Organisations to understand how the research system is responding and any new challenges for applicants.

Support for new COVID-19 research projects

Details of new awards to support COVID-19 related research, can be found here (XLSX, 57KB). Applications for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 research should be submitted via our standard response-mode grant or fellowship funding schemes

The COVID-19 Rapid Response Rolling Call has now closed to new applications. In its place, NIHR will run a Recovering and Learning scheme, while MRC will focus on COVID-19 mechanisms and interventions. More information can be found on the UKRI website at: Funding for COVID-19 research.

An emergency route for time-critical COVID-19 research is available through an expression of interest. This must meet a number of strict criteria. More information: Expression of interest: emergency route for time-critical COVID-19 research.

Rapid Response to Support New Research Projects

To engage the expertise of the UK research community in the fight against COVID-19, the MRC, in partnership with sister UKRI councils and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) launched the DHSC-UKRI COVID-19 rapid response initiative to support research (up to 18 months) to understand, prevent, treat and control the disease. The initiative had two calls: i) active intervention development including vaccines and therapeutics, and ii) diagnosis and understanding of COVID-19.

Twenty-seven new projects totalling £25.2 with NIHR (MRC committed £12.6) were funded.

These projects (PDF, 143KB) (PDF, 143KB) closely link to the WHO COVID-19 research priorities, and include work to develop new vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, research to understand the epidemiology and pathology of the disease and on understanding the biology of the virus and its transmission.

Research in MRC Institutes, Units and Centres

The MRC makes long-term investments in Institutes, Units and Centres which provide national centres of scientific expertise. These include groups that have been able to quickly apply their expertise to do research on SARS-CoV2 and provide advice relevant to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some examples of COVID-19 research being carried out across our Institutes, Units and Centres are summarised below and you can download a more detailed list of projects (XLSX, 65KB) here.

Modelling disease outbreak and understanding transmission

The MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (GIDA, Director Professor Neil Ferguson),is at the forefront of delivering timely analysis to inform policy responses to emerging infectious disease threats. More information on COVID-19 analysis and modelling from GIDA can be found here.

The MRC Biostatistics Unit (BSU) in Cambridge is actively engaged in the effort to understand and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. They have developed the methodology for real-time tracking of the COVID19 pandemic – or “nowcasting” (prediction of the present). In addition, BSU scientists are also providing evidence for patient care. More information of these COVID-19 research areas covered by the BSU can be found here.

UKRI and NIHR have funded eight projects to explore how the virus spreads in different populations such as schoolchildren, healthcare workers and in strictly-Orthodox Jewish communities as well as medical settings and on surfaces in public spaces. These new research projects on coronavirus transmission, which have been awarded a total of £5.3 million, will help inform policy decisions about COVID-19, including infection prevention strategies and containment measures.

Understanding virus biology

The MRC Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow (CVR) is the UK’s largest grouping of human and veterinary virologists. The CVR has numerous research programmes to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, it is part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) which helps sequence the virus in real-time and support surveillance efforts to monitor for the emergence of new virus strains. More details about the CVR’s research response to COVID-19 can be found here.

The MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit at the University of Dundee, working in partnership with the CVR, have developed the Coronavirus Toolkit, a resource comprising of expression plasmids, proteins, and polyclonal antibodies against each of the SARS-CoV-2 and related coronavirus proteins. The PPU is also involved in the COVID-19 Protein Portal, an Open Science initiative that enables UK scientists to share protein reagents relating to SARS-CoV-2. The aim is to accelerate COVID-19 research by providing high quality protein reagents directly to scientists.   

The MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) is deploying its world-leading expertise in high resolution microscopy and structural biology to interrogate how the virus enters and replicates in cells. This includes making different kinds of disabled viruses, so-called ‘pseudotyped’ viruses, that contain the spike (S) protein from SARS-CoV-2, which is used for cellular entry, but no viral genes, to allow scientists to safely study how the spike protein gets the virus into cells. In addition, LMB teams are studying how the immune system responds to the S protein, and other viral proteins which are important for vaccine and therapeutic antibody design.

The Francis Crick Institute has initiated a multidisciplinary research response to the COVID-19 pandemic, deploying their researchers’ wide-ranging expertise in studying the underpinning biology of the virus, the production of recombinant proteins from the virus, chemical inhibitor screening, mechanistic studies, and their work in identifying the most effective treatments for people with severe disease. More information about the Crick’s COVID-19 response can be found here

Social and psychological impacts of COVID-19

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health will be investigated through six projects worth a total of £2 million, awarded by UKRI and NIHR. These projects will focus on reducing the negative effects on the mental health of at-risk groups such as healthcare workers, children and younger people, and those with serious mental health problems.

The MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge is carrying out a range of projects focusing on the psychological impact of COVID-19. For example, the Resilience in Education and Development (RED) Study will explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child development, education and mental wellbeing.

The UK Dementia Research Institute (UKDRI) are characterising the neurological and cognitive effects of SARS-CoV-2 and using remote technology to assess people with dementia and carers in their homes. A rapid, robotics testing platform has also been developed and used by the Institute, to assess the COVID-19 infection rates in several care homes. The study highlights high rates of infection and death from the virus, and urges specific, tailored measures to manage the spread of disease.

The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit are engaging in research to understand the impact of the pandemic on population health and inequalities in collaboration with key partners, including Public Health Scotland. More information on the COVID-19 related research, including several key publications can be found here.

Clinical trials

The MRC has been instrumental in funding several ground-breaking clinical trials relating to COVID-19. These have been administered through our long-term investments such as the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL (CTU), or the Population Health Research Unit at Oxford. These trials have helped rapidly identify effective treatments for COVID-19, while also identifying ineffective treatments that can be discontinued. For example;

RECOVERY trial (‘Randomised Evaluation of COVid-19 thERapY’) was funded as part of the DHSC-UKRI COVID-19 rapid research response for £2.1m. The RECOVERY trial is a large, randomised controlled trial of possible treatments for patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19. It is the fastest growing trial in medical history, enrolling 1,000 patients at 132 hospitals within its first 15 days. Results from RECOVERY indicate that the drug dexamethasone reduces deaths in COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory complications by a third. In contrast, the trial showed that there is no clinical benefit from hydroxychloroquine or lopinavir-ritonavir in hospitalised patients with COVID-19. In early January 2021, RECOVERY showed that there is no clinical benefit to convalescent plasma treatment for patients hospitalised with COVID-19. The RECOVERY trial is continuing to evaluate several anti-inflammatory treatments including the anti-viral antibody cocktail REGN-COV2 developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

PRINCIPLE, a trial for testing potential COVID-19 treatments in the community in patients with mild and moderate COVID-19 showed that inhaled budesonide can shorten the time it takes for people not admitted to hospital to recover from COVID-19 by three days. Budesonide is a common corticosteroid used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the trial was conducted with people over 50 at greater risk of covid-19 and people aged over 65.

ACTT-EU/UK (Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial) launched at the start of April 2020 is a randomised trial that aims to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the anti-viral drug remdesivir, as a treatment for COVID-19. ACTT-EU/UK has recruited more than 1000 patients globally, with the MRC CTU coordinating the trial in the UK and Greece. Preliminary results just a month after the trial launch showed that the speed of recovery for hospitalised COVID-19 patients treated with the drug was 31% faster than for those patients who had the placebo. More information on this work can be found here.

MRC CTU is also coordinating an observational study called CoroNerve that aims to rapidly report neurological features of acute COVID-19 infection in the UK. Another study coordinated by the CTU is ICOS, an international study looking at understanding the disease progression in individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection who do not require immediate hospitalisation.

Understanding the global context

The Global Effort on COVID-19 (GECO) Health Research is a new cross UK government effort to support applied health research that will address COVID-19 knowledge gaps. Twelve new research projects will be aimed at tackling the multiple health consequences of the pandemic on low and middle-income countries. The new research spans more than 18 countries across Africa, South America and South East Asia and covers topics such as transmission and infection control, and how people are affected by the disease in different settings and their long-term outcomes, including the risk of neurological problems.

The MRC/UVRI and LSHTM Research Unit Uganda has joined the research efforts by working on the full genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 positive samples identified in Uganda, which will include analysis of sequence, and the phylogenetic placement within the global epidemic. The work will contribute sequence data to global databases. Researchers are also investigating the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 in Uganda, to determine the coping mechanism of individuals suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19.

The MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM has been funded to conduct a clinical trial of potential therapeutic interventions and is coordinating with other research groups in the region and the WHO Solidarity trial.

Coordinating large amounts of health data

Health Data Research UK (HDR-UK), the national institute for health data science, has been actively championing the use of health data to address the COVID-19 challenge. Current work at HDR-UK includes research on risk factors, genomics, clinical trials, care pathways and surveillance while forging partnerships with government, NHS, industry and academia.

HDR-UK are supporting the National Core Studies programme which is enabling the UK to use health data and research to inform both our near and long-term responses to COVID-19. More information about this programme can be found here. HDR-UK scientists are also advising the Strategic Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on the most important health data research questions to prioritise. These SAGE reports can be found here

The CO-CONNECT (COVID – Curated and Open aNalysis aNd rEsearCh platform) project is a £4 million initiative that will support research into the COVID-19 antibody response by connecting COVID-19 data derived from patient blood samples.

CO-CONNECT will help scientists across the UK to access the data they need more easily to help develop potential therapies and treatment for COVID-19. It is coordinated by HDR-UK, and has been funded through the UKRI-NIHR COVID-19 rapid response rolling call.

Vaccines for Covid-19

Professor Sarah Gilbert at the University of Oxford and Professor Robin Shattock at Imperial College London were both awarded funding under the Rapid Response Call to develop candidate vaccines against COVID-19. 

The results of the Phase III trial for the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine were published in December, confirming that the vaccine is safe, effective, and gives good protection with two different dose regimens, resulting in an average efficacy of 70.4%. The vaccine has since received regulatory approval within the UK after meeting the required safety, quality and effectiveness standards. It is now part of the UK COVID-19 vaccines delivery plan for the largest vaccination programme in British history.

The Imperial College vaccine, based on self-amplifying RNA has been injected into a small number of participants to test for safety and efficacy, after pre-clinical animal studies showed encouraging signs of an effective immune response. The results of these combined Phase 1 and 2 studies are still pending but in the meantime the team are focusing on developing this RNA vaccine technology to target SARS-CoV-2 mutations, boosters and thermostability rather than an immediate efficacy trial.. 

The MRC has a strong foundation in vaccine development, supporting a portfolio of research relating to genetic technology and immunology. The speed at which these COVID-19 vaccine projects have progressed demonstrate how previous work funded by research councils including the MRC, BBSRC, and EPSRC have laid the strong foundations necessary for the rapid deployment of UK scientific expertise in tackling this pandemic.

The MRC and BBSRC provide strategic support for early vaccine development through the Global Challenges Research Fund Vaccine R&D Networks (£12.4 m), which seek to address gaps in discovery and pre-clinical development of vaccines.

Later stage development is supported by, the MRC and BBSRC through the DHSC-led £120 m UK Vaccine Network (UKVN).

Immunology and COVID-19

The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) brings together leading immunologists from 17 research institutions to coordinate an agile national research programme to increase our understanding of how the immune system interacts with SARS-CoV-2. UK-CIC will receive £8.4 million from UKRI and NIHR. The scientists aim to develop better tests to define immunity, to study the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and to understand why some people suffer from severe life-threatening COVID-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus. Importantly these studies will determine when and how immunity persists or whether people can become re-infected. A recent finding from UK-CIC, using data from the Human Cell Atlas showed key differences in immune cells’ response in those who had no symptoms compared to severe symptoms. More results of the UK-CIC can be found here.

Genomic Sequencing for SARS-CoV-2

Virus genomes - COVID-19 Genomics UK

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) is comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions. It delivers large scale, rapid sequencing of the virus and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the government.

By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists can monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how the virus is spreading, whether different strains are emerging, and whether changes in the virus affect the severity of disease. The computing infrastructure and bioinformatics analysis capability of COG-UK is provided by the Cloud Infrastructure for Microbial Bioinformatics (CLIMB) project. CLIMB is an ultra-high performance computing infrastructure that was established through MRC funding in 2014 and is now playing a pivotal role in supporting COG-UK.  

In December 2020, COG-UK identified a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The new variant is associated with a higher rate of transmission, and it may also be linked to increased death rate according to early data. Pathogen surveillance through genome sequencing is vitally important, particularly so during a global pandemic; the massive sequencing efforts of COG-UK has put the UK at the forefront of sequencing the virus, generating more than 165,000 sequences.

Human genomes – Genomics England

Genomics England was initially setup to sequence 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients with rare diseases and common cancers. Funded by the MRC, NIHR, NHS England, Wellcome and CRUK, Genomics England is now working with the GenOMICC consortium to sequence the genomes of thousands of patients with COVID-19 to understand how genetic makeup can influence susceptibility to the virus. This includes up to £3m MRC/UKRI investment targeted at younger individuals with severe symptoms but no underlying health conditions. GenOMICC is a global community of doctors and researchers funded by MRC with Wellcome, Sepsis Research and the Intensive Care Society. Initiated in 2016, the study was designed to investigate emerging infections including SARS and MERS and is therefore well placed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and ethnicity

Six new projects to improve our understanding of the links between COVID-19 and ethnicity have been funded by UKRI and NIHR, totalling nearly £3m. These projects will seek to explain and mitigate the disproportionate death rate from COVID-19 among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, including BAME health and social care workers. The projects were launched following emerging evidence  showing that BAME people are nearly twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, after taking account of age and other sociodemographic factors. Researchers will collaborate with other MRC investments including the UK Biobank and the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit.

Coordination and Resources

UK Collaborative on Development Research

The UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) brings together major UK funders of global health research, and supports an Epidemics Preparedness and Response Group, which involves five UKRI councils (MRC, AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC and NERC), DHSC, the Department for International Development, Wellcome and the Academy of Medical Sciences. The Group is currently helping to coordinate UK research efforts against COVID-19, including through establishing an international database of COVID-19 research awards. UKCDR now lists 5,559 new projects, as of 12 January 2021. 

International coordination

The MRC is also contributing to the co-ordination of international research efforts via two international coordinating bodies formed to improve the global response to epidemic threat: The WHO’s Global Coordinating Mechanism for Research and Development (GCM) and the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R).

COVID-19 National DiagnOstic Research and Evaluation Platform (CONDOR)

The CONDOR platform is a multicentre national programme of research that will evaluate how new diagnostic tests perform in hospitals, general practices and care homes.  CONDOR is funded by the NIHR, UKRI, Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation and will create a single national route for evaluating new diagnostic tests in hospitals and in community healthcare settings.  This programme of research brings together experts who are highly experienced in evaluating diagnostic tests and generating the robust evidence required for a test to be used in the NHS.  Read more here.

UK BioBank

The pioneering UK BioBank, primarily funded by the MRC and Wellcome, tracks the health of 500,000 volunteers in Great Britain aged 50-80+, by gathering data on blood biomarkers and genetics, along with healthcare data including cancer registrations and deaths. It is an invaluable resource for health research with information on genetic and other risk factors and is therefore well placed to help answer a wide range of questions about the COVID19 pandemic. Because UK BioBank  data can be accessed by about 10,000 registered researchers in close to 80 different countries, it is making a major contribution to the global research effort on COVID-19.

UK BioBank has undertaken three major initiatives to help tackle COVID-19. 

  • The Coronavirus Antibody Study will measure coronavirus antibody levels to understand the extent of past infection of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 in different population subgroups across the UK.
  • Crucial data on the health of 500,000 UK Biobank participants are being made available on a regular basis to registered researchers worldwide to undertake vital research into the genetic and lifestyle determinants of COVID-19 and its long-term health consequences.
  • The UK Biobank COVID-19 Repeat Imaging Study aims to scan more than 3,000 people over the next 6 to 9 months. This will generate a unique resource to enable scientists to understand how the virus affects internal organs.  

MRC Regulatory Support Centre

The MRC Regulatory Support Centre helps the scientific community implement legislative and good practice requirements relating to research involving human participants, their tissues or data.  You can find out about the special research governance arrangements currently in place to help tackle the pandemic from the special bulletin: COVID-19 research (PDF, 212KB).

Animal research in the COVID-19 response

Research involving animals has long been essential to human survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases helping to answer a range of research questions from underpinning mechanisms to pre-clinical testing.

The MRC supports national animal facilities (including the MRC Centre for Macaques  and the Mary Lyon Centre, part of the MRC Harwell Institute).

These animal facilities are both involved in COVID-19 research; for example the Mary Lyon Centre is involved in the Global Mouse Models for COVID-19 Consortium (GMMCC), a newly formed group of mouse centres and repositories that have come together to form a consortium to underpin global research into SARS-CoV-2.

By providing coordinated access to reliable and useful animal models for studying SARS-CoV-2, the MRC’s national animal facilities are highlighting the importance of having sufficient breeding facilities as essential national infrastructure. 

More information about how animal research has been critical in the current COVID-19 response is introduced here.


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