Coronavirus research: Contributions from the natural and life sciences
The Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) is involved in diagnosing SARS-CoV-2, in part through its mobile laboratory. It is carrying out epidemiological studies on the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infections in Hamburg and Africa, training laboratory staff and readying laboratories in a number of African countries to diagnose SARS-CoV-2. The BNITM is involved in placebo-controlled multicentre drug studies and is developing improved diagnostic methods. It is also establishing small animal models to study the pathogenesis of COVID-19 and for in-vivo validation of new active substances. The BNITM is involved in the COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring project (COSMO), which is studying knowledge, risk perception, protective behaviours and trust during the current COVID-19 outbreak.
New: The German Federal Ministry of Health has approved joint research projects involving the Research Center Borstel, Leibniz Lungcenter (FZB) and the Heinrich Pette Institute - Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI).
The joint CORSA project investigates how SARS-CoV-2 and further respiratory viruses on surfaces and skin are to be inactivated by using UVC light. Together with partners, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut, Leibniz-Institut fuer Hoechstfrequenztechnik is developing suitable LEDs and is researching the optimal wavelengths and irradiation doses.
The active agent Favipiravir is seen as a drug candidate against COVID-19. A FIZ Karlsruhe case study explores the patent situation by means of the information service STN International. Our STN information service, which is used around the world and focuses on deeply indexed research and patent literature, chemical structures, sequences and materials properties, provides valid information. Questions regarding the current patent situation, e.g., regarding the rights holders or the duration of the remaining patent protection in different countries, must be answered clearly and in good time. Using the example of the drug Avigan (active agent: Favipiravir), which was developed against bird flu and Ebola, the case study by FIZ Karlsruhe demonstrates how these questions can be answered by means of an extensive search in STN patent databases.
Scientific publications and patents related to events of coronavirus outbreaks, especially SARS-COV-1 and MERS, can provide important insights for the development of new treatments against COVID-19. Researching hundreds to thousands of patent documents is a difficult task. FIZ Karlsruhe therefore is researching and developing new semantic technologies for searching and analysing collections of patent information and scientific texts.
The German Diabetes Center (DDZ) is collaborating with the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD) and Helmholtz Zentrum München to provide comprehensive, clear information on the SARS-CoV-2 virus for people with diabetes. The information is being published on a new independent, national diabetes information website: diabinfo.de. The online platform offers quality-assured information on diabetes mellitus and is funded by the German Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA).
The NAKO Study Centre in Berlin-Steglitz, based at the German Institute of Human Nutrition (DIfE), is one of 18 study centres taking part in a survey of all participants in the German National Health Study (NAKO). The aim is to gain insights into the spread, progression and impacts of COVID-19 in Germany. Since up-to-date information about the health of the 200,000 men and women in this study cohort is already available for the period immediately prior to the pandemic and when it started, the NAKO cohort lends itself particularly well to this survey. In the 13-page questionnaire, the 10,000 research subjects of the NAKO Study Centre in Berlin-Süd/Brandenburg are asked about the influence of the coronavirus pandemic on their eating habits, alcohol consumption and physical exercise, among other things. As part of the NAKO expert commission, the DIfE researchers helped draw up the COVID-19 questionnaire.
In addition, Prof. Matthias Schulze co-authored an article in Nature Reviews Endocrinology in which he summarises preliminary data on obesity and the severity of COVID-19.
The German Primate Centre (DPZ) is involved in the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 through the CoV2-DiaNetGÖ diagnostic network at the Göttingen Campus and is conducting intensive basic research that aims to stop the spread of the virus in humans. A nationwide alliance in Germany, which also includes Charité in Berlin, has already identified how the virus enters the host cells and found a potential drug to block this process. The results, based on cell culture experiments, are to be verified in trials with non-human primates in the near future. The state of Lower Saxony is supporting coronavirus research at the DPZ by investing more than two million euros in the development of new therapies based on drugs that have already been approved for the treatment of other diseases. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is investing nearly 200,000 euros in a joint project involving the DPZ, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology (IZI) in Leipzig to identify antibodies that inhibit SARS-CoV-2. In addition, the DPZ is making sample material available to other research institutions around the world to promote the search for new therapies and vaccines for the treatment of COVID-19.
The German Rheumatism Research Centre (DRFZ) offers a unique arsenal for investigating human immune reactions to SARS-Cov2 and for obtaining antibodies against it. It is researching which genes are expressed, what role they play, how they were activated and whether they represent an immunological memory. In doing so, it provides the basis for understanding why the immune response – and the severity of the disease – varies so much between patients. These results are not only essential for treatment, but also for developing a vaccine. A key project is the Human Vaccines Project, in which an international consortium is developing vaccines. The DRFZ is involved in the consortium alongside the Heinrich Pette Institute - Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI), the Leibniz Institute on Aging - Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI) and the Leibniz Association as a whole.
Current research results of the DRFZ on SARS-CoV-2 as well as podcasts, interviews and more about SARS-CoV-2 can be found on this page:
The Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI) is working on the development of new antiviral drugs and therapies to treat COVID-19 as a blueprint for future respiratory viruses in pandemics. It is creating new diagnosis infrastructure and capacity, carrying out preclinical studies, and investigating the biology and pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 compared with SARS-CoV, other CoVs and influenza viruses. One of the aims of the research is to investigate the immune system to answer the question of why the immune systems of older people and of men cope less well with the disease.
HPI and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) have combined their expertise and jointly established a "Surveillance" platform. This platform has already been successfully used to study a number of infection clusters.
As part of the BMBF-funded national research network InfectControl, HPI is working with partners on a targeted therapy against SARS-CoV-2. The aim of the project is to use a novel approach to get the human immune system to recognize and eliminate the virus on its own.
Several large-scale cohort studies are based at or supported by the IUF – Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine. These were extended to cover coronavirus research questions: Within the SALIA and GINI cohort studies we investigated with a questionnaire how many participants had a COVID infection and how the restrictions during the lockdown affected their life. In addition, we will investigate in a DFG funded project whether there is a link between air pollution and falling ill with the coronavirus. In addition, we will study symptoms associated with COVID-19 and stress.
The German National Health Study (NAKO) will use a questionnaire to investigate how many participants showed symptoms and how they are coping with stress. Later on, antibody tests will be carried out to investigate the number of unreported infections.
Researchers at the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) are investigating new COVID-19 diagnosis and therapy approaches, in part through the new Berlin University Alliance. Together with other prominent researchers at the Berlin universities and the Robert Koch Institute, they will be researching potential drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. Among other results, the joint Berlin research activities have led to new antiviral substances that are described in recent scientific literature.
In addition, the FMP researchers are testing substances that prevent the virus from affecting epithelial cells in the lungs. The FMP is developing a rapid test to support diagnosis in the broad population.
In an attempt to answer the question of how enveloped viruses enter cells, the researchers will be investigating the structure of the virus using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). They will also be using NMR to research the structure and dynamics of viral membrane proteins, since they provide a target for antiviral inhibitors.
A severely disturbed sense of smell and taste is the predominant neurological symptom of COVID-19 disease. Scientists assume that the SARS-CoV-2 virus impairs chemosensory perception via other mechanisms than common cold viruses do. In order to investigate these at the molecular level and thus create a scientific basis for new therapeutic approaches and test options, the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology has received funding from the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs for a research project started in June 2020. As part of the MCGG-SARS-CoV-2 project, the institute works closely together with the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the University of Vienna. (MCGG-SARS-CoV-2 stands for: Molekularbiologische Charakterisierung von Geruchs- und Geschmacksrezeptoren bei Probanden mit positivem Nachweis von SARS-CoV-2-IgG-Antikörpern sowie auftretenden Geruchs- und Geschmacksstörungen)
The Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (HKI) focuses on identifying new natural products from micro-organisms and developing them into pharmaceutical leads for therapeutic applications. The researchers at the HKI make use of a comprehensive library of natural products and are constantly discovering new low-molecular substances that are formed during microbial interactions. The broad biological profiling work involving these natural substances and numerous synthetic substances includes antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2. Some of this work is carried out in collaboration with the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology.
New: Within InfectControl, a national research consortium funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the HKI is working with partners on a new therapeutic approach for treating COVID-19.
The Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology (BIPS) is putting its epidemiological expertise to use in research and in providing advice to policymakers and the general population. This includes planning and carrying out epidemiological studies, for example a cohort study in Bremen on disease progression in people infected with COVID-19 or who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, and an international study on the mental health of students before and during the pandemic. In addition, the BIPS advises Bremen’s Senator for Health and is involved in the Public Health Network on COVID-19, an alliance of over 25 specialist associations in the field of public health. The BIPS website provides scientific and practical information, including information about face masks and possible activities.
The Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR) is currently conducting several studies and research projects on COVID-19. The COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring project (COSMO) is analysing psychological stress, as well as risk perception and knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Germany. Within the DynaMORE project, an EU project led by the LIR, researchers are studying the psychological stress in the general population (everyone can take part online or via an app) and in health professions.
In the LORA COVID Study, 500 of 1,200 test subjects from the Longitudinal Resilience Assessment (LORA) of Collaborative Research Centre 1193, which has been running for about two years, are asked each week about stress, resilience and psychological strain during the coronavirus crisis. The LIR also offers an online training course for strengthening resilience called ‘Auf Kurs Bleiben – Kompakt’. In addition, the institute provides support and recommendations for dealing with the psychological consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) has published a statement based on its scientific expertise on the air pollution situation in times of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The statement "Corona lockdown local air quality always results from the combination of emissions, chemical processes and pollutant transport" can be downloaded here.
As aerosols play an essential role in the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) is actively involved in the educational work on the transmission risk by viruses in aerosols of indoor air. In December 2020, the Working Committee Particulate Matter (AAF) and the Society for Aerosol Research (Gesellschaft für Aerosolforschung, GAeF) published two position papers in which TROPOS researchers played a major role. Both position papers summarise the current state of knowledge in an easily understandable way and give concrete recommendations on how the spread via aerosols could be reduced and thus the pandemic could be contained. The position papers can be found here and here. In addition, recommendations for indoor environments have been developed, explicitly aimed at hospitals and nursing homes, in order to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks and thus better protect particularly vulnerable groups of people.
A summary of the effects on air quality using Leipzig as an example is online here.
Over recent years, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) has collected and carried out virus screening on blood samples of wild animals taken from leeches in several Asian countries. The institute plans to expand this screening systematically and to include samples from China especially. In addition, the IZW plans to investigate the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to domestic cats and to cat species held in zoos.
The Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) has a unique arsenal of plant-based, fungal and synthetic active substances that can be optimised using special methods to fight new pathogens and for use in humans. Within the Leibniz Research Alliance on Bioactive Compounds and Biotechnology, these substances are now also being tested against the infection and proliferation processes of the new SARS-CoV-2.
In a second focus area, the IPB is studying adjuvants for immunotherapy. In order to achieve a good level of immunisation, it is not enough to inject suitable antigens (e.g. inactivated virus particles). The immune system often needs an additional ‘boost’ to generate an adequate immune response. This is achieved with adjuvants. The IPB has developed a technology that can produce a wide range of new, high-purity, highly active adjuvants that are designed to help produce the right immune response quickly.
Researchers at the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (Leibniz IPHT) are developing light-based technologies to get to the bottom of corona virus.
They are working on diagnostic testing methods for SARS-CoV-2 and helped develop one of the first antibody tests in early April 2020. The lateral flow test uses a blood sample to indicate within ten minutes whether a person is in the acute phase of infection or has already recovered from it.
An interdisciplinary research team from Leibniz IPHT and Jena University Hospital is using spectroscopic methods to develop a prognostic model to predict disease progression early. In the future, it could help medical staff plan occupancy in advance and transfer particularly at-risk patients to clinics with free capacity in good time.
Infrared sensors from the Leibniz IPHT are used in ventilators. The sensors developed and manufactured at the institute measure the CO₂ content in the breathing air; this provides conclusions about the breathing rate and oxygen supply.
SARS-CoV-2 or influenza? An interdisciplinary research team from Leibniz IPHT is developing an optical method to quickly characterize viruses in a structure-specific manner. To do so, the researchers combine topographic and spectroscopic methods.
To visualize how the coronavirus enters the cell and identify its targets, Leibniz IPHT researchers are studying the molecular structure and dynamics of the virus using super-resolution fluorescence STED microscopy.
The fiber photonics team from Leibniz IPHT, together with the Competence Center for Special Fiber Optics, has developed a microstructured hollow-core fiber with special optical properties to characterize SARS-CoV-2 virus particles and observe their dynamics over long periods of time.
In the BMBF-funded project "PlasmaplusCorona (PPC) - Plasma-based disinfection of the respiratory tract to reduce the SARS-CoV-2 viral load in vitro and in vivo" the INP, together with the Research Centre Borstel, Leibniz Lung Centre (FZB) and the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI) in Hamburg, is pursuing the goal of a plasma-based technical solution for the local treatment of the respiratory tract. The aim is to provide broad proof of efficacy for reducing the viral load and, in particular, to conduct comprehensive preclinical studies on the tolerability of corresponding applications in a clinical context. At a later stage, the investigations will serve to create the scientific and technical prerequisites for a plasma-based medical product.
The BMBF project "Plasma-based disinfection of medical supplies with a focus on medical protective equipment (PlaVir)" focuses on the development of a plasma-based, SARS-CoV-2 virucidal, hygienic process for the treatment of medical devices or medical supplies. On the one hand, the focus is on investigations into the antimicrobial efficacy of reactive plasma nitrogen species on the material to be treated.
On the other hand, the focus is on the development and construction of two atmospheric pressure plasma processes based on reactive oxygen species. For this purpose, two different systems with regard to their discharge characteristics (dielectric barrier discharge and arc-like discharge) are being developed and evaluated for their suitability with regard to batch and continuous operation.
The Leibniz Institute on Aging (FLI) has a number of working groups that investigate changes to the immune system, especially in old age. The FLI intends to bring these skills to bear in coronavirus research. The plan is for a long-term study of immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 over three years, where possible, starting from the onset of the disease, with a focus on the following questions: How long does the immune response last after an infection? How does the immune response of older patients (>65 years) differ from that of younger patients (<40 years)? Model experiments on the progression of the pandemic will help to throw light on different developments in federal states, rural districts, etc.
The Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors (IfADo) has launched a diary study on coronavirus-related home working. As part of the diary study, the team is investigating adaptation processes among employees who are not used to working from home.
In the Dortmund Vital Study, the IfADo is investigating the impacts of and connections between endogenous and exogenous factors and human health and mental capacity. An important aspect is dealing with stress, for example the stress caused by coronavirus-related restrictions. In the current survey, pandemic effects on essential aspects of life are therefore recorded and related to previously collected data from the subjects. Correlations between the effects of the Corona crisis on the behavior and experience of the respondents with stress experience, personality, but also immune status and genetics are analyzed.
The immunology department of the IfADo is developing new test procedures to detect SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. These test procedures are to be used (i) to identify individuals who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (possibly without realising it) and (ii) to carry out studies to investigate the type and concentration of antibodies relevant for immunity against SARS-CoV-2. From June 2021, novel test strategies for SARS-CoV-2 virus surveillance and immunity determination will additionally be developed in an overarching collaborative project (together with Leibniz Institute for Analytical Sciences - ISAS, Dortmund and University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf - UKE, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, duration 18 months).
The For Nature digital programme makes it possible to experience the natural history museum’s collection of 30 million exhibits online, to generate enthusiasm for nature and let visitors take part in research activities. The MfN is experimenting with new formats and expanding its digital offering.
The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) investigates the impacts of the Corona crisis on the climate and vice versa. Scientists examine the temporary drop in CO2 emissions due to the pandemic and how it may accelerate the end of fossil power generation. Their research includes whether climate change might have driven the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, and what lessons for the stabilization of the climate can be learned from the Corona crisis.
Research Center Borstel – Leibniz Lung Center (FZB) is working on and conducting research on COVID-19 in a number of areas, including the development of diagnostic test procedures. For instance, it is working to identify the sequence segments of the SARS-2 spike glycoprotein which are detected by antibodies taken from COVID-19 patients who have recovered, but not by those in serum samples (biobank material) taken before the outbreak of COVID-19. This approach is intended to help find out whether cross-immunity was already present beforehand. The virus genomes in samples from COVID-19 patients are being analysed and compared to capture their diversity. The FZB is planning to collaborate with the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) to investigate how aerosols containing coronavirus behave in the air.
New: The specialist lung hospital attached to the FZB is conducting ‘Corona-Drive-Thru’ tests for SARS-CoV-2. In addition, a large-scale COVID-19 antibody study in Lübeck involving the FZB has just been given the go-ahead. The German Federal Ministry of Health is funding a research project on COVID-19 that is being carried out by the FZB, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) and the Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI).
Many people are at home these days – because they are working from home, looking after children or for other reasons. To offer some variety, the website of the Senckenberg – Leibniz Institution for Biodiversity and Earth System Research has brought together entertaining and informative content.
Researchers at the TIB are developing the Open Research Knowledge Graph (ORKG) that can be used to structure, organise and compare the large volume of COVID-19 research findings, making it possible to identify overlaps and the current state of knowledge in each area.
In addition the TIB is implementing the Knowledge4Covid-19 data pipeline to record and pool COVID-19 research findings. It links COVID-19 findings to existing research results and evaluates them using machine learning approaches to obtain further insights.
Through the Book Sprint Initiative, the TIB’s Open Science Lab is making much-needed literature on dealing with COVID-19 available to the health sector and other professionals. This accomplishes the important task of transferring research findings into operational areas of health care and prevention.
Mathematical models and systematic investigation and interpretation of data play a central role in the current public discourse. They make it possible to describe epidemics, including their progression and the effect of measures. The applied mathematical research at the Weierstrass Institute offers plenty of jumping-off points for this. For example, an optimum, non-pharmaceutical social distancing strategy has been drawn up for the eventuality that no vaccine becomes available and it is not possible to fully contain the virus. Years of investigating stochastic epidemic models on random networks enables scientists to make predictions about the rate of spread, the form of infected clusters and possible localised control measures. WIAS researchers are involved in coronavirus-related activities led by organisations such as the European Mathematical Society (EMS) and the European Consortium for Mathematics in Industry (ECMI), including the Europe-wide ECMI webinar on ‘Mathematics of the COVID19 crisis - In the eye of the storm’.
The Zoological Research Museum Alexander König – Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity (ZFMK) continues to serve its visitors, bringing films, audio plays, audio guides, experiments and guides for craft projects for the whole family, virtual guided tours and interesting research information to visitors in their homes.