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Society and science rocked by Covid-19

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Research community joins fight against pandemic as universities close doors amid European lockdown

Researchers, innovators and academic support staff have united to stem the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease pandemic, as they join with swathes of society in Europe and around the world in having their personal and professional lives thrown into turmoil.

On 13 March, World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that Europe had “become the epicentre” of the pandemic, which originated in China at the end of 2019. It has now infected more than 191,127 people globally and claimed more than 7,807 lives.

“Do not just let this fire burn,” Ghebreyesus implored European leaders. “Even if you cannot stop transmission, you can slow it down and save lives.”

The European Commission said that, working with industry, it had mobilised up to €140 million in public and private funding to support research into new vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests and medical systems. Other funders did similar, but collectively they have yet to find the roughly $8 billion (€7.3bn) the WHO says is needed.

The Commission has assembled a panel of epidemiologists and virologists who will provide science advice to guide the EU’s response to the pandemic. The move came as Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who will co-chair the panel with health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, claimed the German company CureVac could have a vaccine ready for Covid-19 by the autumn. This contradicts expectations of most public health bodies and medicines regulators worldwide.

Meanwhile, country after country has implemented ‘social distancing’ measures—led by Italy, the European country hit hardest so far—to slow the growth of infections and ease pressure on increasingly stretched healthcare systems.

Across the continent, hundreds of universities have closed their doors to face-to-face teaching, major research facilities have postponed experiments, conferences have been cancelled, funding calls pushed back and people in almost every profession have been told to work from home and avoid social contact if possible.

Governments in more than a dozen EU countries ordered all universities to close their doors to teaching. Even in countries whose responses left education institutions open for the time being, such as the UK, many institutions have taken matters into their own hands.

Major research facilities that announced, within days of each other, that they were temporarily closing to researchers included: the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France; the European XFEL, the world’s largest X-ray laser facility, based in Hamburg, Germany; and Europe’s particle physics laboratory Cern, based near Geneva, Switzerland and home to the Large Hadron Collider.

“Our highest priority continues to be to protect the health of all people on site,” Cern said in a statement on 15 March. By 20 March, activities on-site would be “limited to those essential for the safety and security of the site and equipment”, it said.

ESRF closed on 16 March, until further notice. “Only those staff members whose presence is required will be allowed to come to the ESRF site,” director general Francesco Sette told staff, asking them to “please avoid all unnecessary gatherings” and “stay home as much as possible”.

A spokesperson for the European XFEL said up to 500 researchers might be directly affected by its decision on 12 March to postpone experiments between then and June. “The decision to postpone the user run was hard to take, but under the given circumstances we think it’s the best solution,” they said.

The Commission pushed back some deadlines for applications to the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D and Erasmus+ academic mobility programmes, and said it would provide flexibility for existing participants over work delivery and cost reimbursement.

As of 16 March, all Commission staff “in non-critical functions” began working remotely and postponing meetings with external visitors or holding them by video conference if possible. It declined to comment on whether this would affect planning for EU programmes due to start in 2021.

The European Parliament postponed meetings of MEPs, including its research and education committees, which had been due to vote on the EU’s 2021 budget and the future of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.

Political leaders and their advisers indicated that social-distancing measures might need to remain in place for as long as 18 months, until a vaccine could be rolled out. So far neither society nor science has come to terms with what that might mean.

This article also appeared in Research Europe