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MRC Response to Covid-19

4 Aug 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.

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.

Information on UKRI’s recent announcement on COVID-19 Grant Extension Allocations can be found here and detailed UKRI FAQs.

I am a MRC grant holder how can I benefit from the UKRI COVID-19 Grant Extension Allocation?

If your award has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, you could benefit from the UKRI COVID-19 Grant Extension Allocation (£180m) and you should approach your research organisation to find out. The allocation is relevant to most MRC research awards – research grants, new investigator grants, programmes, partnerships, fellowships (excluding CRTF), translation awards, centres and units. Each organisation will be following a process agreed with UKRI to allocate the extension funding. UKRI expects organisations to prioritise help for projects ending by 31 March 2021, so these are most likely to benefit, but any active MRC award at a UK Research Organisation could get support if at risk of being unable to achieve its outcomes. The allocation must be spent by 30 September 2021.

What can I do if I do not qualify for the UKRI Grant Extension Allocation or I need additional support?

Although the UKRI Grant Extension Allocation is flexible we appreciate that it is unlikely to meet all the needs of all MRC awards that have experienced disruption. Some things are specifically excluded e.g. awards to international research organisations and costs beyond 30 September 2021. Some re-planning and prioritisation by award holders within the terms and conditions of your award is expected, as all our resources to support researchers are under pressure. If following this and discussion with your Research Organisation you have concerns about continuing or completing your award then please contact us. You can contact your Programme Manager or RFPD@mrc.ukri.org.

We will announce as soon as we can details of when and how MRC will consider requests for support beyond the scope of the UKRI extension allocation.

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 updated guidance and FAQs 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:

  • 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. MRC applications should be submitted to the UKRI-wide rolling call, which has the objective of rapidly supporting research to address and mitigate the health, social, economic, cultural and environmental impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, with impacts within eighteen months.
     
  • Research addressing the COVID-19 challenge in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) can be submitted to the DHSC/UKRI global effort on COVID-19 (GECO) health research call.
     
  • Details of new awards to support COVID-19 related research, can be found here (XLSX, 57KB). 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, 51KB) 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 the SARS-CoV2 virus  with £0.5m of supplementary funding. Most recently, the CVR has established the COVID-19 Drug-screening and Resistance Hub (CRUSH) that will utilise their state-of-the-art containment facilities, drug screening pipelines, and technological platforms such as real time genomic sequencing and cryo-electron microscopy. More details on CRUSH 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. Currently over 120 DNA clones, 70 proteins, and 42 antibodies have been produced and made available to researchers worldwide on their 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 researchers’ 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. Researchers at the Crick have characterised the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, as well as the spike protein of a closely related bat coronavirus; these structures provide valuable insights into the zoonotic origins of this novel virus, and could help inform vaccine design. More information can be found here on the Crick website

The Cambridge Stem Cell Institute has a number of researchers involved in COVID-19 projects, for example identifying genetic and structural similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and the Rubella virus, and another project looking at cardiovascular dysfunction in COVID-19 patients.

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.

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, using data from UK Biobank, have recently published a study that indicated how some minority ethnic groups have a higher risk of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, which was not accounted for by differences in socioeconomic conditions or baseline self-reported health or behavioural risk factors.

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, or the Population Health Research Unit at Oxford. 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. Preliminary results indicate that the drug dexamethasone reduces deaths in COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory complications, and that there is no clinical benefit from hydroxychloroquine or lopinavir-ritonavir in hospitalised patients with COVID-19. More information on these preliminary results can be found here.

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 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 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 Oxford trial has already seen its first participants injected in late April, with larger Phase II and III trials that began in May. The results of Phase I/II trial published in July indicate no early safety concerns, and demonstrated both T-cell and antibody responses against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including robust neutralising antibody responses.

The Imperial College vaccine, based on self-amplifying RNA has recently 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. This trial, called COVAC, is being coordinated by the MRC Clinical Trials Unit. 

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).

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 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. The MRC Human Genetics Unit (MRC HGU) is a partner of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

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.

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 1,858 new projects, as of 14th July 2020. 

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. MRC funded Institutes and Units including the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit, the Francis Crick Institute, the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research are partners in the Protein Production Consortium, with vast expertise in protein and reagent production. The Portal has the potential to accelerate vital research towards delivery of effective clinical management of COVID-19. Read more here.

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. 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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