Trinity College Dublin is to set up a Covid-19 research hub that will focus on the most urgent scientific breakthroughs needed to address the current pandemic including design of new drugs and a vaccine to combat the virus.
The hub will work with doctors from St James's Hospital, Dublin, other hospitals in Ireland, and established research partners around the world.
It will also work on development of rapid antibody testing capacity to identify current and previous Covid-19 infection in healthcare workers, and eventually the wider community.
This will be critical to determining if doctors and nurses can return to frontline services after infection by the virus, and to informing any easing of lockdown restrictions in the general population.
The problem of supply and validation of commercial antibody testing kits will also be on its research agenda, as numerous test kits coming on to global markets are proving to be inaccurate.
Prof Kingston Mills, who is co-leading the project, underlined the importance of investigating "the immune response in infected and recovered Covid-19 patients to establish whether previous infection prevents reinfection, including serial sampling of patients at St James's Hospital and other collaborating hospitals".
The Covid-19 Research Hub will be located at Trinity’s biomedical sciences institute, and led by immunologists there and infectious disease clinicians from St James’s Hospital.
As foundation partner, AIB has committed €2.4 million to advance the project while the hub will continue to accept contributions from other public and private sources.
Prof Mills said the research would concentrate on the immune responses to the virus in infected and recovered patients. “This will provide key information for the design of vaccines and immunotherapeutic drugs for controlling the often fatal inflammation in Covid-19 patients, and will assist in developing and validating new assays for detecting antibody responses to the virus, thereby identifying those who are ‘immune’ and therefore safe to return to work.”
According to AIB chief executive Colin Hunt: "In the face of this unprecedented medical, societal and economic crisis, it is imperative that we mobilise all the resources at our disposal in a strategic way. We are investing in a national and international endeavour to save lives. Trinity ranks in the top 1 per cent of research institutions globally in medicine and biological sciences, and its immunologists collaborate with the best internationally."
The initiative will also involve the expertise of leading immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill.
TCD provost Patrick Prendergast said the solution to the Covid-19 crisis would probably be found in university laboratories in the months ahead following collaboration between leading researchers across the globe.
“Trinity is one of the world’s leading universities when it comes to research into immunology and immunity and has the research expertise to play a major role. Donations such as this are a generous, practical and timely contribution to the fight against this terrible virus,” he said.
Prof Aideen Long, director of Trinity's translational medicine institute, is the other co-leader, while consultant immunologist Niall Conlon; consultant physician in infectious diseases Colm Bergin; professor of translational immunology Padraic Fallon; and consultant Clíona Ní Cheallaigh will all play key roles.
The project will also benefit from Trinity's global network of collaborations and contacts in universities such as MIT in Boston and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and with Public Health England, "so knowledge is shared and breakthroughs on Covid-19 are as effective and swift as possible".