Covid-19: Research findings form the basis for scientific communication with public authorities

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Insights into Covid-19, recommendations for health authorities and vaccines: the findings and synthesis report for the Swiss National Science Foundation's National Research Programme "Covid-19" (NRP 78) were presented today.

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) launched the National Research Programme "Covid-19" (NRP 78) in April 2020 with a total budget of 20 million Swiss francs. Since then, some 200 researchers working on 28 projects have compiled extensive findings on the coronavirus pandemic and the handling of future pandemics.

These biomedical projects carried out basic research to gain a better understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus triggers diseases and immune system responses. Researchers pursued new approaches in epidemiology and disease prevention to look at the transmission paths of the virus and develop protective measures. Various projects contributed to the development of diagnostics, drugs and vaccines, while multiple clinical trials investigated therapeutic interventions to improve the treatment of Covid-19.

Dynamic research environment

The greatest challenge faced by all researchers was dealing with the highly dynamic research environment, the speed of which was partly due to the global scale of the pandemic. The crisis showed that Swiss research is able to deliver rapid results. "Many aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic were unknown when the research programme began. We hadn't expected vaccines to be developed so quickly, for example. That's why we initially placed a strong focus on treatment. But we took an agile approach throughout the research phase and adapted to new developments," explains Nicolas Rodondi, Professor at Bern's Institute of Primary Health Care (BIHAM) and member of the NRP 78 Steering Committee. "Because of the unknown factors, we were only able to investigate key phenomena such as long Covid once the programme was already under way."

Research to support the authorities

During the early stages of the pandemic in particular, epidemiological and large-scale monitoring projects in NRP 78 provided important findings for the Federal Council's scientific advisory body, the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force, and for the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH). The Federal Council and public authorities were provided with support in their decision-making – with projects that looked at population mobility patterns during the pandemic and at the transmissibility of the virus, for example, as well as weekly analyses regarding the acceptance of protective measures. "Research projects are of huge benefit to the public sector and an important element in decision-making processes. Research played a crucial role, especially in the early detection of outbreaks and in combating of the pandemic in general," says Linda Nartey, Vice Director of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), summing up. The FOPH believes that collaboration between researchers and public bodies needs to be strengthened further: "We need a clear allocation of roles, coordinated communication, collaboration based on trust and transparency and a favourable framework for the awarding of projects."

Satisfying results and lessons learned for future crises

Marcel Salathé, Professor of Epidemiology at EPF Lausanne and President of the NRP 78 Steering Committee, is fully satisfied with the findings of the research projects. In addition to the research results, the programme was also able to draw further insights from the crisis situation: "Collaboration between the scientific community and public administrations and authorities needs to be optimised. It is vital that this communication is formalised to ensure that cooperation between the two groups functions smoothly in the event of a new crisis." In the synthesis report on NRP 78, Marcel Salathé lists a number of ways in which this could be achieved: with regular symposia to transfer knowledge, a joint doctoral programme between a university and the Federal Office of Public Health, and exchange programmes for scientific employees in the public sector and members of universities.

National Research Programme "Covid-19" (NRP 78)

Implemented by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), NRP 78 aimed to provide rapid new insights into Covid-19 and the evolution of the pandemic.

Its four modules investigated basic aspects of SARS-CoV-2 biology, pathogenicity and immunogenicity, new approaches in Covid-19 epidemiology and disease prevention, vaccine, drug and diagnostics development, and innovative clinical approaches and therapeutic interventions for treating cases of Covid-19.

The research projects started in autumn 2020 and ran for two and a half years with a budget amounting to 20 million Swiss francs. The SNSF selected 28 research projects from the 190 proposals submitted. The findings are summed up in the synthesis report on NRP 78.