Funding for 26 Covid-19 research projects following from “hundreds of ideas” by Ireland’s top scientists have been backed by the Government, as third-level institutions pivot researchers towards the virus and future pandemics.
The most advanced work will track Covid-19 genetics, better diagnostics, development of antiviral treatments and vaccines, healthcare, infection control, contact tracing, mental health and social distancing.
One project will track the so-called “silent infection” – asymptomatic spread of the Covid-19 virus in the community – while another will focus on the spread among healthcare workers.
Use of digital technologies including apps will be investigated, along with online resources to support healthcare professionals and identify ways to improve pandemic communications.
Most third-level institutions are already making PPE for frontline health staff and helping to create a secure, reliable supply of high-quality reagents to enable large-scale testing.
One of five UCD-led projects is to develop and supply necessary reagents and materials for Sars-CoV-2 testing for hospitals in the Ireland East Hospital Group. It was awarded €540,000 – the highest-funded project.
Awarding €5 million in grants, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys paid tribute to all researchers for coming up with projects so rapidly.
The research call-out was set up by funding agencies including the Health Research Board, Irish Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland.
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) will look at how Covid-19 has affected older people – the most at-risk group, said principal investigator Prof Rose Anne Kenny of Trinity College Dublin.
Researchers will focus on getting a better understanding of the links between coronavirus, gradual deterioration of the immune system brought on by age and vaccinations, she said.
The restrictions had affected the elderly hugely, she went on, so Tilda will investigate the impact on mental and physical health: “This is important if we are to understand and manage the collateral damage from Covid-19,” she said.
NUI Galway received backing for seven projects. University president, Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, said the projects will seek to address all of the challenges caused by the pandemic, including the economic and social ones.
He added: “It’s important that as a society, we firstly address the current crisis and then look to the future. We find ourselves having to reimagine our humanity as we face new times and new realities.”
Minister for Health Simon Harris said research and development was critical to supporting Ireland's national action plan in response to Covid-19 and in navigating "a way forward for individuals, communities and society as a whole".
He said he was committed to a coordinated and proactive approach to ensuring Covid patients “across all settings in Ireland have access to new and emerging treatments as part of clinical trials”.