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UPDATED: Meet the IMI projects already helping to fight COVID-19

A number of IMI’s projects are making valuable contributions to the global effort to tackle COVID-19. The contributions include knowledge, tools and expertise, and while some come from projects in the infectious disease field, projects working in other areas, such as data management and Alzheimer’s disease, are also stepping up to the plate.

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
Particles of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH


This article is updated whenever we get new information on our projects' work relating to COVID-19. Details of changes made are listed here.


ZAPI – knowledge and tools for a rapid response to a coronavirus outbreak

Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases (i.e. diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans) are the focus of the ZAPI project. Launched in 2015, ZAPI brings together some of the world’s top virologists with the goal of delivering a platform and technologies to facilitate a rapid response to disease outbreaks. One of the diseases chosen by ZAPI as a case study is MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which, like COVID-19, is caused by a coronavirus.

The surfaces of both viruses feature ‘spike proteins’ which help the virus to break into cells and infect them. ZAPI developed a number of antibodies that block the MERS spike proteins; tests in animals showed that these could be effective as treatments for MERS. The team also drew on a MERS spike protein to create a vaccine; again, tests in animals showed that it appears to be effective.

ZAPI has also advanced the development of a biomanufacturing platform that means production of vaccines or therapeutic antibodies can be rapidly scaled up. Finally, they have compiled a master file to facilitate the fast-track regulatory approval of vaccines and therapeutics in emergency situations. This has been shared with regulatory and other authorities.

Studies suggest that ZAPI’s results on MERS antibodies could be useful in the hunt for treatments for COVID-19. This work is being taken forward in the MANCO project, which is funded by the European Commission under its emergency coronavirus Call. MANCO will carry out further preclinical work on the antibodies, e.g. studying their safety and efficacy, and hopefully advance one antibody into a Phase 1 clinical trial. In addition, work on optimized SARS-CoV-2 antibodies is also expected to be carried out in one of IMI’s COVID projects, CARE, which includes a number of pharmaceutical companies and will be formally launched soon.

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EHDEN – harmonising clinical data to facilitate reuse and advance research

In April 2020, EHDEN launched a data harmonisation Call for organisations with patient data relating to COVID-19. Harmonising patient data (while preserving patients’ privacy) will make it easier to aggregate and jointly analyse data from different sources, something that is essential if we are to stop the outbreak and save lives. EHDEN received 75 applications; after review, 25 data partners in 10 countries were selected. Between them, the partners have data from 1 million SARS-COV-2-tested patients; 228 000 of whom tested positive. EHDEN is now harmonising the data to the OMOP Common Data Model so that meaningful insights and evidence can be generated in the coming months that will ultimately improve patient care.

Elsewhere, EHDEN partners were also active in the COVID-19 ‘study-a-thon’ hosted by the Observational Health Data Sciences and Informatics (OHDSI) community. The virtual event drew on diverse data from 37 healthcare databases, some of which included COVID-19 data. This showed that standardising data can facilitate fast analysis and so support evidence-based decision-making. So far, the study-a-thon has resulted in a number of papers, including one in Nature Communications which paints a detailed picture of hospitalised COVID-19 patients in a number of countries.

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EHDEN, ConcePTION and ADVANCE - helping the EMA gather real-world data on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines

The EHDEN and ConcePTION projects plus the ADVANCE/VAC4EU initiative will help the European Medicines Agency (EMA) gather real world data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments once they are approved and being used in day-to-day clinical practice.

EHDEN is already working with 25 data partners across Europe, to help them map COVID-19 data to a common data model. Now, it is set to collaborate with the EMA on the creation of a framework for multicentre cohort studies on the use of medicines in COVID-19 patients.

ConcePTION will collaborate with the EMA on a project that will collect data on the impact of COVID-19 in pregnancy and follow up the baby to monitor long-term outcomes in order to guide decision-making about vaccine indications, vaccination policies and treatment options for COVID-19 in pregnant women.

The international association VAC4EU (Vaccine Monitoring Collaboration for Europe) is set to work with the EMA to prepare for the monitoring of the benefits and risks of COVID-19 vaccines in Europe. VAC4EU was born out of IMI’s ADVANCE project, which drew on lessons learnt from the 2009 swine flu pandemic to create an ecosystem for monitoring vaccine benefits and risks.

The outcomes of the projects will feed into the work of EMA’s COVID-19 EMA pandemic Task Force (COVID-ETF) and EMA’s scientific committees, to ensure that the evidence is translated into scientific opinions on the optimal use of the medicines and vaccines concerned.

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COMBACTE – access to a clinical trial network specialised in infectious disease studies

IMI’s COMBACTE projects have set up a pan-European network of 975 hospitals and 800 laboratories for clinical studies and trials on antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Now, scientists are turning to the networks to identify sites for clinical trials of potential COVID-19 treatments.

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ELF/ESCulab – fast track assessment for COVID proposals

The European Lead Factory combines a large compound collection and high throughput screening centre that scientists can access to advance their own research projects. Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, the ELF team decided to fast-track screening proposals relating to the coronavirus. In July, the project announced that it had selected its first proposal, which aims to identify small molecules that could stop the virus from getting into human cells.

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RADAR-CNS uses wearable tech and mobile devices to assess impact of COVID-19 lockdowns

IMI’s RADAR-CNS project is using wearable devices and mobile phones to monitor people with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and major depressive disorder. The hope is that by gathering data continuously via these devices, relapses in a patient’s condition could be predicted or even avoided. As countries across Europe shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, RADAR-CNS was able to use its systems to assess how people’s behaviour changed during and after lockdown. While mobility markers fell, virtual sociability rose, with participants spending more time active on their phones and using social media apps. Participants also had a lower heart rate, went to bed later, and slept more. ‘This ability to monitor response to interventions, in near real time, will be particularly important in understanding behavior as social distancing measures are relaxed as part of any COVID-19 exit strategy,’ the researchers note.

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SOPHIA highlights experience of people with obesity during COVID-19 pandemic

Obesity has been identified as a risk factor for COVID-19 disease, but how do people living with obesity feel about the pandemic? IMI’s SOPHIA project aims to understand who is at greatest risk of health problems associated with obesity. The team interviewed 23 people undergoing diverse obesity treatments about their experience of living through the pandemic. Their findings, published in the journal Clinical Obesity, revealed that the pandemic affected both diets and physical activity. It also impacted on people’s psychosocial wellbeing, as people worried about what would happen if they caught the disease. At the same time, some patients were not aware of the link between obesity and COVID-19. Looking to the future, the researchers call for more research into the links between obesity and COVID-19, and note that this should be communicated in a way that does not stigmatise people with obesity.

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HARMONY – COVID-19 data initiative

HARMONY is a big data focused on blood cancers. Now, they have launched an open call for data partners to join the HARMONY COVID-19 Data Platform. Data integrated in the platform will be used for internal HARMONY projects addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on the treatment of blood cancers; and for external projects on COVID-19.

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AETIONOMY & PHAGO – tools for a new COVID-19 knowledge space

IMI’s AETIONOMY and PHAGO projects focus on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, but that doesn’t mean their outputs aren’t relevant for COVID-19 research. Now a group of institutions, including AETIONOMY coordinator Fraunhofer SCAI, has included tools developed by the projects in the newly-launched COVID-19 Knowledge Space.

The Knowledge Space helps researchers to navigate the rapidly-growing volume of publications and data on COVID-19 and mine them for novel insights on the disease. It includes the AETIONOMY project’s SCAIView information retrieval system, which allows for semantic searches in large text collections by combining free text searches with the ontological representations of entities. It also includes the PHAGO project’s Biomedical Knowledge Miner (BiK>Mi), which provides tools to access and validate knowledge encompassing all of the latest information pertaining to COVID-19.

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eTRIKS – standards starter pack

Data standards are vital tools in data management, as they make it easier to load data into knowledge management platforms and compare it to other datasets that have applied the same standards. IMI’s eTRIKS project created a ‘standards starter pack’ to raise awareness of, and provide guidance on, data standards in clinical, genomic and translational data management. The starter pack is referenced in the European Commission’s open access guidelines for projects working on COVID-19 and related topics.

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DO>IT – informed consent forms for clinical research

Clinical research participants have to sign an informed consent form (ICF). IMI’s DO>IT project has developed templates and guidance on how to prepare informed consent forms that enable the use of study participants’ health data and biosamples while respecting their rights as data subjects. The templates are referenced in the European Commission’s open access guidelines for projects working on COVID-19 and related topics.

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EUPATI – reliable resources for patients

EUPATI has compiled a list of content and resources that provide reliable information on COVID-19 and other topics relating to medicines research and development and patient education.

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c4c – resources on COVID-19 for children and families

c4c is one of IMI’s projects in the paediatric field, and now the team has compiled a set of trustworthy resources on the coronavirus for children and families. The resources come in a range of languages and formats and target different age ranges.

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    Article history

    This article was initially published on 6 May 2020.
    Update of 23 July 2020: Addition of sections on European Lead Factory and EUPATI. Updates to sections on EHDEN and ZAPI.

    Update of 30 July 2020: Addition of section on EHDEN, ConcePTION and ADVANCE.
    Update of 16 October 2020: Addition of sections on RADAR-CNS and SOPHIA. Update to section on EHDEN.

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