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Coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2: Charité coordinates network of academic medical research into COVID-19

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In response to an initiative by Charité which is aimed at tackling the current pandemic crisis, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has allocated €150 million for a new academic research network. The network, which aims to pool all relevant expertise and support COVID-19-related research from across Germany, will be coordinated by Charité.

The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) represents Germany’s biggest post-war challenge. The task of curbing the spread of the virus requires a nationwide, unified approach, as does the task of ensuring optimal medical care. Increasing the knowledge base, and doing so quickly, is of the utmost importance – and requires an effective support structure.

This will be provided by the new research network, an alliance which aims to include all of Germany’s university hospitals. In response to an initiative by Prof. Dr. Heyo K. Kroemer (Chief Executive Officer of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) and Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten (Director of the Institute of Virology on Campus Charité Mitte), the BMBF has agreed to provide €150 million in funding. For the first time, the nation will respond to a crisis by systematically collating and consolidating both the response plans and the diagnostic and treatment strategies of its various university hospitals and other stakeholders from within the health care system.

Prof. Kroemer explains: “This is the first time that the Federal Government has explicitly appealed to the whole of German academic medicine with an initiative aimed at tackling a situation with major health and social ramifications. In contrast to the usual competitive funding process which awards funding to individual universities, this approach is an attempt to manage the current crisis by utilizing the nation’s potential in a coordinated manner. We have never seen anything like this in Germany before.”

Prof. Drosten adds: “The purpose of the network is to steer research to where the patients are: university hospitals. If, like me, you are involved in academic medical research, you are communicating not only with the departments responsible for treating patients, but also with the experts in your own field. While these people have specific research expertise, their work takes place far away from patients. Germany’s university hospitals effectively act as mediators in this regard and this is precisely what we are hoping to utilize now.”

Under the auspices of the research network, the university hospitals will be in a position to act quickly and effectively while also preserving their high standards of quality. This will be particularly useful for the use of innovative methods, such as using telemedicine to care for patients with COVID-19. Once successfully trialed, such methods can be rolled out quickly and on a large scale. Researchers will also use standardized procedures for the treatment and follow-up of COVID-19 patients, and for the analysis of data collated in connection with these patients. This will enable the researchers to develop new treatment options for specific groups of patients, such as those with pre-existing conditions. Both existing knowledge and new insights are to be communicated widely. This will enable their prompt implementation in clinical practice and ensure patients receive the best treatments available. The resulting comprehensive data sets will also help to produce new scientific insights. In addition to being of enormous benefit to the development of treatments and vaccines, they will also be extremely helpful in managing this pandemic.

Explaining the importance of the initiative, the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, says:

“The initiative launched by Professors Kroemer and Drosten can support us in our fight against this pandemic. It will therefore also play a key role in the treatment of many critically ill patients. This initiative is unique, both in terms of our current exceptional circumstances and our society as a whole. We need the most effective ideas and concepts, not only to ensure patients receive optimal care, but also to ensure that staff are protected. Germany’s university hospitals will take a prominent role in the development of these ideas and concepts. We hope to make even greater use of their expertise. Charité will be in charge of coordinating this network.

Current plans include the following: As part of the initiative, researchers hope to collate and analyze existing action plans as well as diagnostic and treatment strategies from across Germany. Ideally, we will receive data sets from every single university hospital in Germany. The aim is to learn together, but also to learn from one another. After all, the current pandemic represents a challenge unlike anything we have seen before. The objective is to create structures and processes which will ensure optimal care for patients with COVID-19. This will enable both university hospitals and other hospitals to act quickly and effectively while also ensuring high standards of quality.

The plan is also for all university hospitals to systematically collect data on any patients receiving treatment for COVID-19. The data will then be entered into a database. This will enable researchers to access medical histories as well as data on patients’ general health. This data set may also benefit from the involvement of other, non-medical researchers. Their work could be conducted in parallel, to complement that of the medical researchers. A comprehensive data set is likely to help researchers produce valid and extremely useful findings. In addition to supporting individualized care plans, these will also help to manage the current pandemic and support the development of vaccines and treatments.

One of the first steps will be to set up a National Task Force. The Federal Government will take an active role in this. The purpose of the Task Force will be to steer and coordinate the activities of the various stakeholders from academic medicine and politics. There are also plans to involve other scientific networks. This will enable us to build on and strengthen existing ties between science and politics. I am convinced that this unique scientific project, this pooling of resources, will help us to advance our research base and make major advances in the treatment of COVID-19. I would like to thank Professors Kroemer and Drosten for taking the initiative in this and wish them every success. And I am absolutely certain that in thanking them, I speak on behalf of a great many people in this country.