Thursday, 24 September 2020

THREE University of Limerick projects are among those funded through the COVID-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation Programme announced by Minister Simon Harris this Thursday.

Minister Harris announces €5.5million in funding to 41 new projects under the SFI led COVID-19 programme, which is focused on supporting projects which respond to the immediate and pressing needs of society arising from the pandemic.

The UL projects are led by Dr James Sweeney, Department of Mathematics and Statistics who has received €54,243, Dr Ahmad B. Albadarin, Chemical Sciences and the Bernal Institute who has received €255,731 and Dr Peter Davern, Chemical Sciences, €78,000 (see project summaries below for more detail).

Announcing the awards Minister Harris, said: “Today I am pleased to announce a further investment of €5.5 million in research and innovation related to COVID-19. It is clear this virus is with us for a significant period of time and yet we still have a lot to learn about it.

“Research, development and innovation will play a significant role in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The 41 projects announced today are part of a national drive to find solutions to the challenges we face now, and to help us prepare to live in a changing environment that requires new thinking and innovative approaches. I would like to congratulate all of the researchers receiving funding today and thank them for their efforts in Ireland’s collective response to COVID-19.”

Commenting on the awards, Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, said: “The COVID-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation funding is critical to supporting Ireland’s National Action Plan in response to the pandemic. The projects announced today will play a pivotal role in developing societal and economic solutions to challenges we face.

“This is the fourth announcement of COVID-19 funding from SFI to support research projects across a number of Higher Education Institutes. In the global response to COVID-19, collaboration and partnership are key, so I am delighted that funding for 41 more outstanding projects is announced today. As a nation, we are stronger when we work together, and we will continue to generate solutions to the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The COVID-19 Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme was established by SFI, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Health Research Board and Irish Research Council.

Today’s announcement builds on SFI’s previous investment of €8 million across 17 COVID-19 research and innovation projects.  All of the projects funded have been internationally peer reviewed at the assessment stage.

UL projects:

A dashboard for policies to slow the spread of COVID-19

Lead Researcher: Dr James Sweeney, University of Limerick


To reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we need to bring the transmission rate (the R number, or number of people each infected person infects) to below 1. This is the aim of public health measure interventions and advice such as washing hands, social distancing and restricting the number of close contacts. A project funded by SFI will develop a dashboard of information and build a framework to help optimise decisions about public health policies, including their potential to reduce transmission in association with their likely economic cost. The results will help policymakers to make evidence-based decisions at national and regional levels which attempt to balance the sometimes conflicting aims of reducing disease transmission whilst also facilitating economic activity.

What is the issue?

Public health recommendations can reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and they need to be made based on evidence. However, each public health recommendation comes at an economic cost, due, for example, to restrictions on movement or particular activities. There is a need to develop a framework for estimating the benefits of individual disease prevention measures as well as their economic costs.

What will the research project do?

The research project, which involves team members who work in the National Irish Epidemiology (Covid-19) Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG) that reports to the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), will create a dashboard of information to help policy makers optimise public health recommendations in regards to both disease transmission and economic costs.

What will the impact be?

By making information about the costs and benefits of potential public health recommendations, the research will make it easier to design and implement costed evidence-based policy decisions for Ireland, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Dr James Sweeney, Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Limerick, says: “We believe that the framework we aim to construct will be of great benefit to health officials in identifying optimal health intervention strategies whilst allowing for careful weighting between disease transmission reduction and economic cost.”

Self-sufficiency in lysis buffer for Ireland

Lead Researchers: Dr Peter Davern and Dr Emmet O’Reilly, University of Limerick


Lysis buffer is a critical component in the COVID-19 testing process, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Ireland has to compete on the open international market for stocks of lysis buffer, which are mainly limited due to the scarcity of guanidine thiocyanate, the key reagent in the buffer’s make up.

SFI is funding research at the University of Limerick to validate the chemistry needed for the scalable preparation of guanidine from readily available raw materials and its subsequent conversion to guanidine thiocyanate for use in lysis buffer. The scalable process will be made available under licence to organisations in Ireland who can manufacture the buffer, thus securing Ireland’s supply.

What is the issue?

Lysis buffer is needed for COVID-19 tests, but it contains a key reagent called guanidine thiocyanate that is in short supply globally. This could mean that Ireland runs short of lysis buffer for testing.

What will the research do?

Researchers at the University of Limerick will validate and scale up processes to make guanidine thiocyanate from readily available raw materials. The research will be a collaboration between Dr Peter Davern, Dr Emmet O’Reilly, Dr John O’Reilly, Dr Michael Kennedy, Dr Sarah Hudson and Dr Edel Durack.

What will the impact be?

The final scalable user-friendly process will be made available under licence to interested parties, such as manufacturers in the Irish pharma-chem sector for pilot scale production and Irish third level institutions for laboratory-scale production. This will guarantee Ireland’s on-demand supply of this strategic reagent in the medium to long term.

Dr Peter Davern, Lecturer at UL’s Department of Chemical Sciences, says: “The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerability of individual countries to variations in the open market for the supply of critical materials, including PPE and testing reagents. Guanidine thiocyanate is not presently manufactured in Ireland, so it makes strategic sense for Ireland to have the capability to produce its own stocks, on-demand, from readily accessible raw materials, and thus assure the necessary supply of lysis buffer into the future.”

Novel inhalable antiviral drugs to tackle COVID-19

Lead Researcher: Dr Ahmad B. Albadarin, University of Limerick


When you inhale medication for respiratory related illnesses, it travels to the airways directly and can potentially be more efficient than if you take the medicine orally or by injection. However, to date, there are few inhalable drugs to counteract viruses, and none of them target SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

SFI is funding a project at the University of Limerick to develop and optimise antiviral drugs so they can be inhaled. The researchers at UL Bernal Institute, Trinity College Dublin, Waterford Institute of Technology and Teva Pharmaceuticals will test how well the inhalable antiviral drugs target SARS-CoV-2 in the lab, with the goal of developing inhalable versions of existing antiviral drugs for use in clinical trials against COVID-19.

What is the issue?

In general, medicines that are inhaled have been shown to be taken up more effectively in the airways compared to drugs administered by other routes, but we have little fundamental information about the development and benefits of inhaled antiviral drugs in COVID-19.  

What will the research do?

The research will develop, optimise inhalable formulations of antiviral drugs, and test them in the lab to assess their suitability. The long-term goal is to prepare inhalable formulations of commercially available antiviral drugs currently in clinical trials for treating lung injury in COVID-19.

What will the impact be?

Inhalable antiviral formulations will decrease the severity of SARS-COV-2 infections and the progression of the disease. This will significantly reduce in-patient admissions, the burden on public budgets and hospitals and, most importantly, deaths due to COVID-19.

Dr Ahmad B. Albadarin, Principal Investigator at UL School of Chemical Sciences and the Bernal Institute says: “This strategic project takes a very collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to collecting and providing impactful results and reliable data on novel inhalable formulations of antiviral drugs to address COVID-19 related infections. The aim is to develop and test these formulations in collaboration with our academic and industrial partners taking into consideration the feasibility of large-scale manufacture of the optimised formulations. The efficacy for antiviral activity at the lung epithelium will be assessed using in-vitro and ex-vivo approaches. The project is set to significantly help prevent the progression of the disease towards life-threatening conditions, limit the severity and duration of infections and subsequently reduce SARS-COV-2-related in/out-patient admissions.”