Fast Track Call (FTC) for
Acute Global Health Challenges

The BRCCH is pleased to announce 11 COVID-19 research consortia: The mandate of the BRCCH is to drive the development of innovative and step-changing health solutions for those who are most in need. With the support of Fondation Botnar, the BRCCH launches a new research initiative to address several critical areas related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Initiative’s objective is to both enable research that will help mitigate medical and public health challenges in the short-term, and to also contribute solutions that will lead to better preparedness and reduced global disease burden in the long-term.

The BRCCH Board approved the FTC external evaluation committee’s recommendation to support 11 projects that seek to deliver immediate impact in the following research areas:

    This area encompasses innovative diagnostic approaches that overcome the limitations of current standard assays to provide more rapid, robust and accurate detection of COVID-19 infections. Novel approaches that will enable early detection of outbreaks, social distancing and quarantine measures are sought. Technologies that aim to improve medical interventions for COVID-19, not only those that increase the understanding of viral evolution, are of strong interest. Diagnostics that can be implemented at larger, population-scale and used for surveillance will also be considered. Technologies that are cost-effective, robust in variable conditions, and scalable are of interest (links to E- and M-Health platforms are desirable).

    This area addresses translational studies that aim to investigate the role of the human immune system in the pathogenesis of COVID-19. Proposals of high interest include novel approaches to studying the immune response in COVID-19-infected patients and/or those receiving experimental treatments (e.g. vaccines). These could include efforts such as: (i) informing therapeutic and immunisation strategies; (ii) identifying novel markers and therapeutic targets and (iii) providing novel insights into disease progression and outcomes.

    This area seeks innovative technology- and molecular-based approaches to improve medical treatment and disease management for COVID-19 patients. Novel therapeutic and preventative approaches to combatting infection and to improving health outcomes are of particular interest, including small molecule therapeutics, biologics, vaccines and immune-enhancing technologies. In addition, this area welcomes innovative digital technologies and medical devices that will improve patient medical care and monitoring, and/or increase the scale of healthcare delivery to reduce disease burden and mortality rates.

    Rapid and effective consortia among BRCCH’s four partner institutions, University of Basel including University Hospital Basel (USB), ETH Zurich, University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB) and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH), and in collaboration with research teams worldwide, will aim to address urgent health needs. The following projects start activities this month.

    The project led by Professor Janos Vörös (ETH Zurich) aims to develop a mobile and rapid diagnostic test system for COVID-19 based on lateral flow assays. The project will provide a highly sensitive means for diagnosing SARS-CoV-2 infection at point-of-need.

    In a project to be carried out in Lesotho, Dr Klaus Reither (Swiss TPH) and his team will combine artificial intelligence, chest X-ray and antigen-based diagnostic tests to enable and improve diagnosis of COVID-19 patients in low-income settings. This project will be carried out in collaboration with the Foundation for Innovative Diagnostics (FIND).

    PCR-based testing has been widely adopted as a method to detect SARS-CoV-2 infection. While this method is sensitive, it is time-consuming and costly. To overcome these challenges, Professor Wendelin Stark (ETH Zurich) and his team aim to develop a portable PCR device that will allow viral testing to be carried out more rapidly and at a lower-cost. The device will have the potential to increase diagnostic capacity not only in high-income countries such as Switzerland, but also in low- and middle-income settings.

    Professor Sai Reddy (ETH Zurich) and his team aim to use a novel approach based on molecular barcoding and deep sequencing that will allow up to approx. 5,000 individualised patient samples to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 at once, thereby enabling large-scale surveillance of COVID-19. In addition, the team will develop an innovative high-throughput serology platform for detecting antibodies generated against SARS-CoV-2.

    The team led by Professor Daniel Paris (Swiss TPH) aims to develop a simple, low-cost device that can detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 using saliva. The project seeks to identify individuals who have been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 and to provide valuable insights into the variations in the immune response to COVID-19.

    The team led by Professor Alexandar Tzankov (USB & University of Basel) aims to bring together long-standing expertise in autopsy, pathology, immunology and neurology in Basel to investigate the interactions of SARS-CoV-2 with tissues and organs derived from deceased patients. The project will contribute valuable insights into the pathogenesis of COVID-19 and into the future design of medical interventions for this disease.

    The team led by Professor Christoph Hess (University of Basel) aims to investigate the role of the immune response to COVID-19 in patients. The team will explore how biological processes in immune cells, particularly metabolism, and their respective functions are affected in patients with differing levels of disease severity with the aim of improving therapeutic interventions for COVID-19 patients.

    Professor Andreas Moor (ETH Zurich) and his team will investigate B cell immunity in convalescent COVID-19 patients with the aim of identifying high-affinity antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 that could be further harnessed for therapeutic interventions.

    The project led by Professor Melissa Penny (Swiss TPH) seeks to harness mathematical modelling and machine learning approaches to guide and optimize clinical and public health strategies for diagnostics, therapeutic interventions, disease surveillance and management in the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Professor Thomas Erb (UKBB) and his team aim to integrate innovative pressure sensors in low-cost ventilators to improve patient care and outcomes and to help overcome the global shortage of ventilators.

    Professor Randall Platt (ETH Zurich) and his team seek to utilize a CRISPR-based screening approach to identify host factors that are important for SARS-CoV-2 infection for potential target discovery.

    Each project is considerably supported for a duration of 2.5 years.

    About the Call: The initial call for the FTC circulated on March 27th, 2020. 73 research consortia submitted project proposals on April 8th, with more than 97 (Co-) Investigators involved and total requested budget of approximately CHF 84 million. Applications were evaluated by an external and international panel of reviewers. The panel recommended to support 11 projects (success rate of 15%), which were subsequently approved by the BRCCH Board. The FTC initiative is generously supported by Fondation Botnar.