Tackling Coronavirus: EU Commission offers funding for startups in effort to stop pandemic

The European Commission is urging startups to apply for the next round of the EIC Accelerator in an effort to help tackle the Coronavirus pandemic.

In a press release on Friday 13th March, the European Commission said it is “calling for startups and SMEs with technologies and innovations that could help in treating, testing, monitoring or other aspects of the Coronavirus outbreak”.

With a budget of € 164M, the “bottom up” call means that the EU Commission will look to fast track the awarding of EIC Accelerator grants and blended finance (equity investments) to any startups who can offer “Coronavirus relevant innovation” as well as facilitating access to other funding sources.

EU Commission’s EIC Accelerator Pilot

The EIC Accelerator is a European Innovation Council pilot whose main focus is to support top class innovators, entrepreneurs and startups with funding and acceleration services.

The EIC is already supporting a number of SME’s with Coronavirus relevant innovations, including EpiShuttle project, m-TAP project, by Smart Separations and MBENT project, all of whom have received funding in previous rounds.

Visit the EIC site to find out more or apply for the EIC Accelerator.

The race to beat the Coronavirus

With infection rates throughout Europe and the world rapidly rising, the search for effective treatments is now stepping up. In an effort to thwart the spread of the virus, including faster detection, treatments and the all important vaccine, governments have earmarked billions of dollars for research and development.

Channel 4, recently reported that a UK pharmaceutical company has developed a rapid self testing kit which is able to detect the presence of Covid-19 antibodies in as little as 10 minutes (whereas as NHS hospital test can take much longer). The company aims to start distribution to UK pharmacies from next week, aiming to make it available to the wider public within 3 weeks.

Public Health England is reported to be considering over a dozen different rapid test kit solutions from other manufacturers.

Novel treatments for a Novel virus.

In China, doctors and health officials have been repurposing antiviral treatments such as Kaletra (normally a HIV inhibiting treatment) for treating Covid-19 patients. AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company, has entered into partnership with health authorities in several countries to investigate the efficacy and antiviral activity of the medication.

Meanwhile, Chinese health officials say that a Coronavirus vaccine could be ready for clinical trials as soon as next month.

Companies such as Gilead Science, are reporting to be developing Remdesivir, an anti-viral that’s shown promising results in lab and animal studies against infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The company has initiated large scale clinical trials in both US and China to see if the vaccine is effective against the Novel Coronavirus.

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Politics and policies

As the number of affected countries and cases rises, governments around the world are scrambling to implement what they believe to be the most effective measures.

In Italy, the country has moved to a near total lockdown, emulating similar tactics employed by Chinese authorities. With the largest number of confirmed cases and deaths outside of China, Italy’s health system is feared to be at over capacity and in danger of collapse. The country is in a even more precarious situation as it has the second oldest population after Japan, which also explains why it has been hit so hard by the pandemic. Schools, colleges and large events have been closed or cancelled, with people in many parts of the country under quarantine and not allowed to travel outside if their local area.

The UK on the other hand is taking a different approach, conceding the fact that containing the outbreak will not be possible. Instead, the UK government outlined it’s plan on Thursday to control the rate of infection in an effort to prioritise critical NHS resources on treating the most at risk, mainly the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

The plan calls for “social distancing measures” of increasing severity with the aim of introducing more stringent measures “at the right time”. The final objective is to create herd immunity by letting much of the population contract the disease and self isolating for a period of 2 weeks.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson had a stark warning during the press conference, saying “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. However, the government will not implement school closures “unless the scientific advice changes”. Similarly, large scale events would not be cancelled, pointing out that due to the method of infection, events such as football games, are not likely to increase infection rates, as infections will likely happen more in close quarters environments such as between family members, friends and colleagues.

Since the press conference, the official advice has changed, citing that closure of large events will help release capacity for emergency services to focus on the rising number of confirmed cases. The change came as the UK saw its biggest jump in deaths from 10 to 21 in a single day.

The government insists it’s plan is based on solid scientific advice, modeled on the latest available data. However, the plan has been met with wide ranging criticism, including a signed letter by a group of more than 200 mathematicians, urging the government to introduce similar measures to Italy and saying that the current strategy is “risking lives”.

Interestingly, none of the 200 signatories are experts in disease control, prompting the BBC to change its headline and include the admission in its article.

Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance and the Chief Medical Advisor, Prof Chris Whitty have said they intend to publish the computer models on which their strategy is based.

Health Secretary, Matt Hancock said today during an interview with Andrew Marr that the Government is planning to announce it’s most stringent measure to date of mandatory self isolation for the over 70’s within weeks. Adding that car manufacturers, weapon makers and army suppliers would be asked to change their production lines to make ventilators for use in hospitals treating coronavirus.

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Meanwhile in America

The US response to the Coronavirus left much to be desired. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump assured Americans that the Covid-19 outbreak was on the brink of disappearance even though there had been over 2 dozen reported deaths in the country. This follows weeks of the president dismissing the Coronavirus threat, making incorrect statements about testing, the severity of the disease and even citing the possibility of a vaccine being made available quickly, often followed by his officials having to correct the statements within minutes of being made.

Only two days later, his administration did a complete U turn, promising the Federal Government would do all that is necessary to protect the American public. Stringent travel restrictions, including banning any travel from the EU (with the exception of US citizens), seem aimed more at his core base rather than based on any logic or need.

The message is “America First” and with presidential election due to take place later in the year, it seems President Trump remains determined to remind his core supporters of his MEGA (Make America Great Again) policies.

The move is unlikely to change the rate of infection in the US, with more than 2700 confirmed cases and 57 deaths in 47 states. The lack of a nationalised health system, privatised healthcare and large numbers of people without health insurance is making it very difficult for local authorities to coordinate an effective response.

An aid package of $50bn was announced, and hours later, the President threw his support behind House Democrats aid package. It is hoped the new measures will help local authorities effect a stronger response in their regions.

Global economy likely most “at risk” patient

The biggest long term danger seems be the slowdown of the world economy and a likely global recessions.

Markets around the world have been in freefall, with indexes such as the FTSE100 losing up to £144bn ($176b) of its value in the last month alone. On Thursday, the Dow Jones had stop stop trading for 15 minutes as the index dropped over 9% from start of trading. Meanwhile, the FTSE MIB in Milan saw it’s worst day of trading after losing 17% of its value but managing to regain 7% by the end of the day. The downwards trend started at the end of January as quarantine measures in China put pressure on world supply chains. Overall, various markets have lost as much as 35% of their value, wiping $9 trillion off the global economy.

A raft of aid packages have been announced as the world’s leading economies try to shore up markets. The ECB (European Central Bank) will increase quantitative easing by a further €120 billions by the end of 2020 but have held off on lowering interest rates for now. Germany announced it would offer “unlimited” credit in the biggest economic aid package in the country’s post-war history. It is expected that over €500bn of government backed credit will be pumped into the economy.

The US Federal Reserve promised a $1.5 trillion of liquidity support for bond markets, after Covid-19 outbreak caused disturbances in the crucial US bond market. The Fed said it would make vast sums available for short-term loans available on Wall Street and also purchase Treasury securities in an effort to stabilize markets.

In the UK, the BoE (Bank of England) took the initiative on Tuesday 10th March to lower its interest rate to a record low of 0.25% ahead of the new budget. The Monetary Policy Committee also voted unanimously to introduce a new Term Funding scheme with additional incentives for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, to be financed by the issuance of central bank reserves. It is expected that the new measures will release £100 billion for SME lending, while relaxed financial regulations will enable lenders to pump an extra £200 billion of credit into the economy.

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Meanwhile, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his first budget on Wednesday, announcing a £12 billion package to combat Coronavirus outbreak, including £5bn emergency response fund for NHS and other public services. Statutory sick pay from day one for anyone asked to self-isolate and contributory Employment Support Allowance for the self-employed A new “business interruption” loan for small first to borrow up to £1.2m, as well as, full refunds of sick pay for companies with less than 250 staff. The contacious Business Rates will also be abolished for firms in retail leisure and hospitality sectors (below £51,000 rateable value) for the rest of the year with a comprehensive review of the entire system going forward.

The measures seemed to be starting to have a positive effect. On Friday, the FTSE 100 ended +2.46% /128 points up at 5,366.11, the Dow Jones Index saw the biggest bounce back finishing +9.36%/1,985 points up at 23,185.62. Similarly FTSE MIB finished 7.12% up, S&P 500 at +9.29% and DAX at just 0.77%

However, the situation is so fast moving that trading tomorrow is likely to be very shaky. The closing of borders announced by the US on Thursday have now expanded to include UK and Northern Ireland from Monday. Similarly, Switzerland, Austria and Germany have announcing they will also close some if not all borders with their neighbours.

The travel restrictions will put unprecedented strain on airliners and the air industry as a whole. BA (British Airways) have already announced incoming job loses. In a letter to staff, their Chief Executive, Alex Cruiz said “Please do not underestimate the seriousness of this for our company”.

He told staff the current crisis was more serious than both 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 and added “We can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs would be lost – perhaps for a short term, perhaps longer term.”

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association warned on Friday that global revenue loses for airlines will likely surpass the previous figure of $130bn released just a week before.

The problem will be further exacerbated by a drop in consumer demand for leisure and hospitality industries as entire nations go into lockdown and people are asked to self-isolate and work from home.

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Panic buying has been seen across Europe, UK and America, with consumers hysteria starting to reach fever pitch with the Coronavirus dominating all news. As is to be expected, fear inducing headlines are everywhere and combined with conflicting information, fake news (no, gurgling warm water with salt or vinegar doesn’t kill the Coronavirus ????‍♂️) and conspiracy theories circling online, we are likely to see a short term strain on supply lines.

The key will be to see if panic can subside over the coming weeks and how quickly people will get used to the new normal of restricted travel, working from home and above all else, taking good hygienic measures.

The official advice remains:

  1. To thoroughly washing your hands often (for at least 20 seconds), especially when you arrive at a destination
  2. Not to touch your face, mouth, nose or eyes.
  3. Keep a distance of at least 1m from others where possible.
  4. If you experience any flu like symptoms, self isolate immediately and contact your local health service, do not go into hospital or GP office unless told to do so.

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Darie Nani
Darie Nani

With a love for all things tech and a gift for breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized pieces, I aim to dish out smart and practical tips to help my readers conquer the ever-shifting digital landscape. I hope to enlighten and inform (and sometimes amuse) my readers with the intel they need to make savvy decisions.

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