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MRC Response to Covid-19

2 Jun 2020

Contents

Summary

The ongoing situation regarding coronavirus has significantly impacted our research community and MRC staff, many of whom have a critical role to play in tackling this crisis. The nature of these impacts is evolving. We are identifying new issues as they emerge and providing answers and support wherever possible.

This page contains regularly updated information about how we are supporting our research community, 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.

Background

On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Office in China was informed that cases of pneumonia of an unknown cause had been detected in Wuhan City, in the Hubei Province of China. The Chinese authorities identified this to be a previously unknown type of coronavirus (SARS-CoV2, with the disease it causes being called COVID-19).

The MRC through its membership of the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), was tracking the emerging outbreak through January 2020, and UK researchers were proactively contacting UKRI and other funders with proposals for research. To address the challenge posed by COVID-19, the MRC is deploying its long-term strategic investments in relevant research areas and supporting the re-purposing of existing funding as well as supporting new research projects via rapid response calls.

To reduce duplication and maximize impact the MRC is coordinating its activities with other UK and International funders, and all this work is building on historic support for coronavirus research.

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 repurposing existing UKRI grants or applying for new grant funding for COVID-19 research is available here.

Existing MRC-supported researchers

If your MRC-supported research is being impacted by Coronavirus, please refer to UKRI’s guidance for research and innovation communities, and if necessary you can then contact us about managing your award, including to apply to repurpose funding. You may also find it useful to refer to the recent open letters to the research and innovation community from Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UKRI, which you can find here: March, April and June.

If you are an MRC award holder interested in starting or restarting non-COVID-19 clinical studies, please see the NIHR framework, and MRC’s guidance on the issue (PDF, 103KB). If you are a clinical academic returning from clinical duties related to COVID-19, please see this guidance from the Clinical Academic Training Forum (CAFT) (PDF, 134KB).

Support for new COVID-19 research projects

MRC is funding new research projects as part of the UKRI response:

Applications for longer term SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 research should be submitted via our standard response-mode grant or fellowship funding schemes.

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, 37KB) here.

Modelling disease outbreak and spread

The MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (Director Professor Neil Ferguson), is at the forefront of delivering timely analysis to inform policy responses to emerging infectious disease threats, and was rapidly awarded an additional £0.5m to support their real-time analysis and modelling of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic and the impact of COVID-19.

The MRC Biostatistics Unit (BSU) in Cambridge is developing the methodology for real-time tracking of the COVID19 pandemic – or “nowcasting” (prediction of the present). Working closely with Public Health England (PHE), the researchers are using a transmission model, data on daily COVID-19 confirmed deaths and information on the risk of dying and the time from infection to death, to reconstruct the number of new COVID-19 infections over time. This will help to estimate a measure of ongoing transmission (R); and predict the number of new COVID-19 deaths in different regions and age groups to help inform the public health response to the outbreak, by providing the R0 and attack rates by region.

Understanding virus biology

The MRC Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow (CVR) represents the UK’s largest grouping of human and veterinary virologists. The Centre has contributed expertise to recent Ebola outbreaks, and is now working on SARS-CoV2 with £0.5m of supplementary funding. Working in collaboration with the NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre, CVR researchers completed the genomic sequencing and analysis of Scotland’s first confirmed Covid-19 case within 48 hours of diagnosis.

The MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit at the University of Dundee, working in partnership with the CVR, has identified 38 separate proteins produced by SARS-CoV-2 –the virus that causes COVID-19 – that produce an immune response in the body. The Dundee team is now manufacturing these components of the virus, in order to generate antibodies against them. These all-important biological tools are now available to researchers worldwide on the Unit’s Coronavirus Toolkit Website.

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 researcher’s wide-ranging expertise in studying the underpinning biology of the virus, the production of recombinant proteins from the virus as a resource for immunological studies, chemical inhibitor screening, mechanistic studies, and their work in identifying the most effective treatments for people with severe disease.

Social and psychological impacts of COVID-19

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. Baseline assessment data for this study was already collected before the pandemic, and now detailed information about family life in lockdown is being collected, with follow-up assessment data collection when children return to school. CBU scientists are also planning the Isolation Tracker project, to understand the effects of social isolation, and how different behaviours such as exercise, sleep, or technology use could mitigate or exacerbate these effects. The results from this project will be shared quickly to ensure that the learnings lead to the appropriate policy recommendations on which behaviours to encourage during the crisis.

Clinical trials

The MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL has been instrumental in coordinating ground-breaking clinical trials relating to COVID-19. For example, the Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial (ACTT-EU/UK) 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 that aims to rapidly report neurological features of acute COVID-19 infection in the UK, and a Phase 1 study to determine if a therapeutic nasal and throat powder spray would prevent viral cell entry via the nasal respiratory and throat epithelia.

Understanding the global context

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 by UVRI, 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. They are also investigating the effects of COVID-19 in pregnant women and new-born babies, based on an existing cohort study.

Coordinating large amounts of health data

Health Data Research 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. These key activities are captured on the HDR UK COVID-19 Activities + Skills Matchmaking Tool, an online spreadsheet. HDR-UK are also implementing a prioritisation system to ensure that resources are appropriately directed to where they are needed. This strategy will ensure that the best of the UK’s health data science capability will be leveraged to address the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerate access to UK-wide priority datasets, and coordinate and connect a national data science driven research effort across the UK.

Support work

MRC Institutes, Units and Centres are also engaged in a range of other vital activity closely linked with the WHO Covid-19 research priorities, as well as contributing towards virus testing efforts, loaning or donating equipment (including protective personal equipment), and clinically qualified research staff have increased their work with the NHS.

Rapid Response to Support New Research Projects

To engage the expertise of the UK research community in the fight against COVID-19, on February 4 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.
27 new projects totalling £24.6m were funded.

These projects (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. More information about what was supported is summarised here.

In addition to the usual assessment of scientific quality, applications were assessed for whether or not they would have a public health impact within the period of the award; whether they addressed priorities identified in the WHO R&D Roadmap; and their contribution to a coordinated research response/portfolio of COVID-19-relevant research.

The planning of the initiative drew heavily on the experience from our rapid response to Zika in 2016. Since our initial COVID-19 rapid response calls, ongoing rolling calls for applications have been set up.

Vaccines

The ability to move quickly to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is dependent on the resources that the MRC and our sister UKRI councils have already in place to support vaccine development. For example, 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.

To support later stage development, the MRC and BBSRC are providing support for the DHSC-led £120 m UK Vaccine Network (UKVN). The Network brings together industry, academia and relevant funding bodies to make targeted investments in specific vaccines and vaccine technology for twelve priority diseases with the potential to cause an epidemic. Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford University, who has received funding from the rapid response call, is able to move quickly towards clinical evaluation of a new COVID-19 vaccine, because she is drawing on evidence developed through a UKVN award to undertake a Phase 1 clinical trial of a closely related MERS vaccine.

Genomic Sequencing

On 23 March the MRC, in partnership with DHSC and Wellcome, backed the UK’s leading clinicians and scientists to map how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. Through a £20 million investment, the COVID-19 Genomcis UK Consortium will look for insights that help the UK respond to this and future pandemics.

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium is comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions. It will deliver 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.

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.

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 Protein Portal

The Covid-19 Protein Portal, an initiative led by Wellcome and UKRI, allows UK scientists to access protein reagents needed for critical research relating to SARS-CoV-2 from a consortium of leading protein production laboratories. 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 its 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. Most recently, UK BioBank has received approval for a seroprevalence study involving the participants and their children in 20,000 households across Great Britain. In addition, UK BioBank is involved in a dynamic linkage study that has enabled COVID-19 positive participants to be rapidly identified. This means that severe infections requiring hospitalisation can be investigated intensively to quickly identify genetic and other risk factors for severe infection. 

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

MRC-supported coronavirus research – what came before SARS-CoV2?

Until end of 2019, there were six coronaviruses that were known to infect people. Four - 229E (alpha coronavirus); NL63 (alpha coronavirus); OC43 (beta coronavirus); HKU1 (beta coronavirus) – cause common colds, and two others – MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS) and SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS) – can cause life-threatening respiratory disease.

SARS-CoV2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, only crossed into human hosts late in 2019 and causes a disease with a lower-case fatality rate than either MERS or SARS. Prior to this pandemic the MRC has funded research on other members of the coronavirus family.

Research supported by the MRC since the 2002 SARS outbreak (PDF, 61KB) includes research into a number of the coronaviruses that are known to infect people and other members of the coronavirus that infect animals, given the complex interactions between pathogens, people, animals and ecosystems, including the zoonotic potential of these viruses.

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