LONDON – COVID-19 excepted, biomedical research projects and clinical trials are grinding to a halt across Europe, as universities shut down and administrators stop any work not related to the coronavirus.
University College London (UCL), the largest biomedical research university in Europe, put all its research on hold, as it released clinical staff from academic and research responsibilities to join those on the front line treating COVID-19 patients.
That includes medically trained staff from faculties of medical sciences, population health and neurosciences, among others. Other scientists in UCL labs with relevant skills have been freed up to help with the epidemic.
“From the end of Friday, the only research that will take place in our buildings will be in the immediate national interest,” said UCL’s provost, Michael Arthur. UCL is currently running 20 research projects related to COVID-19.
Similarly, Cambridge University told all its staff to work from home and for its clinical staff to prioritize working in the health service, as opposed to other university duties.
“Unless it is related to COVID-19, including vaccines, testing, public health and patient care, all research undertaken on university premises will need to be paused,” said Stephen Toope, vice chancellor. “The only buildings open will be where research is undertaken relating to COVID-19 or other areas in the immediate national interest.”
Toope promised vital biological samples will be secured safely and said special arrangements will be made to care for animals and plants that are critical to research, but warned, “It may be months before we resume normal activity.”
It is a similar picture at other leading U.K. biomedical research universities, including Oxford, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Manchester, where all but COVID-19 laboratory research is suspended.
One of Switzerland’s leading universities, ETH Zurich, also switched to emergency operation, after the Swiss Federal Council declared a state of emergency in response to the epidemic.
Joel Mesot, ETH president, said containing the virus “must come before anything else.”
The university will reduce to an absolute minimum all activities which require a physical presence. That will mean 30,000 people will no longer be traveling to the campus every day. There will be some exemptions, but Mesot said it is clear there will be a “drastic cutback” in ETH research activity, adding, “We will not be making any cutbacks in the research projects focused on coronavirus. On the contrary, we are currently pooling the university’s entire expertise.”
In Belgium, KU Leuven said it is suspending all non-essential research, with no new experiments to be set up in its labs. Provisions will be put in place to ensure projects involving lab animals do not go to waste.
However, admitted Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven, “In most research groups, departments and labs, the impact has become so significant that it jeopardizes the work organization.”
In Germany, particle accelerators and other facilities at the government-funded DESY synchrotron centers in Hamburg and Zeuthen have been put on a reduced operating mode. Researchers from all over Europe who come there to run experiments will not have access until further notice.
Just one machine, the Petra III X-ray source, remains in standby mode and will be powered up for COVID-19-related structural research only.
DESY’s counterpart in the U.K., the Diamond Light Source, has suspended user operations. It will be possible to run sessions remotely, but only on samples related to COVID-19 research.
On the leading edge of unravelling COVID-19 genomics, the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K., is closing its campus to all but coronavirus activities. The announcement was made as the U.K. government launched a £20 million (US$23 million) initiative to intensify genome sequencing on COVID-19, to map how it spreads and evolves.
Sanger and other academic institutes will carry out next-generation sequencing of samples from patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections. The U.K. government also released £10.5 million in funding for six other rapid response coronavirus projects.
Impact on clinical trials
Even before basic and translational research was mothballed, the impact on clinical trials was being felt, with studies postponed or put on hold, for the safety of patients and to free up clinical staff.
That has now led to a complete ban on the setup of sites for any new or ongoing clinical studies in any National Health Service hospital in the U.K. The National Institute for Health Research said only trials that are “nationally prioritized” will be allowed.
Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, which represents 140 research funding bodies, said she agrees it is right to focus on COVID-19 research, but asked for the blanket ban to be reconsidered.
“The decision to suspend clinical trials, if doing so does not endanger the patient, will have a significant impact on participating patients and their families,” Burnand said. “We ask that decisions on each trial are made with that impact on patients in mind. These decisions need to be proportionate, and communicated transparently and sensitively.”
During the suspension, the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Agency is continuing to provide an appraisals service for all studies, ensuring site setup can restart promptly in due course.
The agency also issued guidance on managing ongoing clinical trials, guiding companies on what they need to do if studies are halted due to COVID-19-related issues, how to restart halted trials, and what to do if a participant cannot attend a trial site.
The U.K.’s MHRA said it will support remote monitoring of trials and allow in-person visits to be replaced by phone calls.
Similarly, the EMA has outlined changes and protocol deviations to deal with extraordinary situations, such as if trial participants need to be in self-isolation or quarantine, if access to public places, including hospitals, is restricted, and if health care professionals are being moved to other duties.
There is specific advice on the start of new clinical trials for treatments of COVID-19, and in particular on the need for large, multinational trial protocols. That is in line with the call the EMA issued last week for robust trial methodology in clinical trials for potential COVID-19 treatments or vaccines.