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The vital role of HSC R&D during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research becomes even more critical in the event of a new disease, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Never in modern times has there been a greater challenge for healthcare, and this has brought together all sectors in an unprecedented global effort.

To support frontline medical staff in their efforts to deal with the virus, there are clinical, academic and commercial researchers; research funders; and policymakers who are working towards the shared goal of understanding the new virus.

The work of the HSC Research & Development (R&D) Division is based on the principle that the best health and social care must be underpinned by knowledge, based on well-conducted research, which can then be applied in the delivery of care. There is a growing evidence base that shows research-active healthcare organisations provide better outcomes for their patients.

Addressing the COVID19 Challenge

In line with other funders, HSC R&D Division has issued a COVID-19 specific research funding call and expects to support further important studies in the near future. We aim to feature more information about these studies in future updates on

The HSC R&D Division is participating in the national prioritisation process to ensure there will be opportunities for patients in Northern Ireland to take part in COVID-19 studies. To date, the Northern Ireland Clinical Research Network (NICRN) is supporting enrolment of patients into a number of COVID-19 studies in both critical care and primary care, including PRINCIPLE, REMAP-CAP and REALIST. The REALIST study, a UK-wide cell therapy trial, led by Professor Danny McAuley, critical care consultant in Belfast HSCT, recruited the first patient last week. This is the first patient with COVID-19 in the UK recruited to a cell therapy trial and the first COVID-19 patient in Northern Ireland to be recruited to any trial so far.

Emerging Opportunities

New research is rapidly being set up and carried out on every aspect of COVID-19, including genetic components, symptoms, diagnosis, testing and identifying those who have had the virus, and their lived experience. Research is ongoing into treatments, interventions to control the spread and the societal impacts, including mental health and loneliness in isolation, behaviours during social distancing and the experience of health professionals involved in the care of COVID-19 patients.

While acknowledging the challenge of carrying out research in health and social care at this time, the UK Chief Medical Officers have asked healthcare organisations to give priority to enrolling patients in COVID-19 related research and in particular clinical trials.

Sharing the Knowledge Base

An additional function of the R&D Division at this time is to form the Science and Technology Advisory Cell (STAC) for HSC. This new role involves the core team, as well as an external academic and professional advisory group, in responding to queries on COVID-19. The core team and/or external advisory group will trawl the relevant literature to provide responses where there is no existing guidance from other authoritative sources, or where evidence is lacking or unclear. The STAC is also convening small research groups focused on areas such as community surveillance and behaviour change to draw together expertise that will support the PHA in the fight against the pandemic.

HSC R&D Division continues to play their full part in the battle against COVID-19, and will endeavour to make sure that the research funded in Northern Ireland will help to improve outcomes for COVID-19 patients at home and across the globe.

Current research

Clinical trials are currently taking place across primary care, hospital settings and ICU’s. The following Coronavirus (COVID-19) related research studies are active in Northern Ireland:

  • RECOVERY: Re-purposing existing and new drugs for COVID-19 patients

  • REMAP-CAP: Reducing mortality, ICU use, morbidity in patients with COVID-19

  • PRIEST: Evaluating triage methods to determine outcomes in COVID-19 patients

  • PRINCIPLE: Platform Randomised trial of INterventions against COVID-19 In older peoPLE (in setup)

  • RECOVERY-Respiratory Support: Ventilation Strategies in COVID-19; CPAP, High-flow, and standard care

  • REALIST: Repair of ARDS by Stromal Cell Administration

More information on all these studies can be found here>