The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a global disruption that has severely impacted the world’s health, as well as a multitude of aspects of economic and social life. Since the beginning, the scientific community has embarked on the complex, multidisciplinary challenge of looking for solutions to the various areas that have been affected.
In this context, the BBVA Foundation has provided 20 grants totaling €2.7 million to research projects as part of a special call for proposals. The selected projects include more than 400 researchers divided into five disciplines: biomedicine (four grants of €250,000); big data and artificial intelligence (four grants of €100,000); economics and social sciences (four grants of €100,000) and humanities (four grants of €75,000). From different angles, the projects cover infection mechanisms, the use of big data for diagnostics and treatment, as well as its psychosocial and economic impact. Five committee experts evaluated the nearly 1,000 projects that were presented.
In the biomedicine field, the projects selected to receive the grants are:
- Synthetic immunotherapy against COVID-19 and future coronavirus pandemics. Led by Luis Álvarez Vallina, the Head of the Cancer Immunotherapy Unit at the October 12th Research Foundation (F12O), this projects intends to develop and validate on a preclinical level a synthetic immunology strategy to generate immunity against coronavirus species that use the protein ACE2 as an entrance to the human cell.
- Re-educating the immune system to fight COVID-19. Ángel Corbí López, Research Professor at the CSIC scientific research council, is spearheading this project that aims to test the hypothesis that it is possible to re-educate macrophages so that they act positively and prevent more severe damage from COVID-19.
- Researching the macrophages in a unique collection of COVID-19 biopsies. Ignacio Melero, a researcher in the Navarra University’s Department of Clinical Immunology, is directing this research team that will attempt to identify the mechanisms that explain the high presence and activation of macrophages in a unique collection of samples from micro-autopsies.
- Bioengineering to generate miniature human kidneys and understand the coronavirus infection. This project is led by researchers from three centers in different countries, with Nuria Monserrat, an expert in development biology at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia as the main researcher. The team of researchers will study how SARS-CoV-2 infects the cells of miniature kidneys, made from human stem cells using bioengineering, which will make it possible to accelerate a type of research that would otherwise take years.
The projects selected in the big data and artificial intelligence area are:
- Machine learning models to determine the risk of death or intubation. Using data from more than 9,000 patients, this project led by Concha Bielza, Statistics and Operational Research Professor in the Artificial Intelligence Department at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, will develop machine learning models to predict a person’s risk of death or intubation analyzing the factors that will determine the prognosis.
- A database that compiles all scientific knowledge on coronavirus. Artificial Intelligence Professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Óscar Corcho García, is leading the research that aims to make the most of all of the scientific articles published on coronavirus.
- Deep learning algorithms to diagnose COVID-19 in chest x-rays. With the goal of developing an artificial intelligence tool to identify pulmonary involvement in the early stages using chest x-rays, Francisco Herrara, a professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Department and Director of the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Inter-university Institute of Andalusia, is directing this project based on deep learning algorithms.
- Analysis of human mobility to measure the impact of lockdown measures. Nuria Oliver, co-founder of the ELLIS Alicante Foundation, is in charge of this project that will analyze human mobility on a large scale using mobile data.
In the ecology and veterinary field, the selected projects were:
- Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in samples of atmospheric aerosol. The aim of this project spearheaded by Juana María Delgado Saborit, Distinguished GenT researcher in the Perinatal Epidemiology, Environmental Health and Clinical Research Group at the Jaume I University, is to explore and exploit the incubation period of the virus to facilitate the design of emergency plans and policy measures.
- The relationship between atmospheric pollution and COVID-19. This project seeks to better understand the relationship between atmospheric pollution and COVID-19. The research is directed by Ignacio Fernández Olmo, a Chemical Engineering and Biomolecular Professor at the University of Cantabria.
- Models of genetically modified mice to study the infection in humans and animals. Alfonso Gutiérrez Adán, Professor of Research and Co-director of the Department of Animal Reproduction at the National Institute of Agricultural and Food Research and Technology (INIA), is organizing this research project to create the first models of genetically modified mice that reproduce the human infection and model of possible species spreading the virus.
- The role of pets in the transmission of the virus. The research conducted by Joaquim Segalés Coma, researcher at the Center for Research on Animal Health (CReSA) in the Institute for Food and Agricultural Research and Technology (IRTA), and Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), aims to establish the virus infection frequency in pets and determine their role in the epidemiology of COVID-19 as potential reservoirs.
In the field of economics and social sciences, the projects selected to receive the grants are:
- The effectiveness of social public policies to combat the COVID-19 crisis. The purpose of the project is to quantitatively evaluate whether the socioeconomic policies adopted in Spain are effective and manage to correct inequalities, or on the contrary, exacerbate these imbalances. The team is led by Juan José Dolado Lobregad, a professor in the Economics Department at the Carlos III University of Madrid.
- Real-time monitoring of massive data to improve COVID-19 public policy. Rubén Durante, Professor of Economics and Business at the Pompeu Fabra University, is the lead researcher in this project that is monitoring in real-time anonymous, aggregated banking data from millions of bank customers in order to analyze the evolution of their income and consumption patterns.
- Immediate detection of fake news related to COVID-19. To ensure as quickly and efficiently as possible that news are accurate and reliable, the project will compile a vast amount of information on COVID-19 to tag them and develop an engine that can be built into browsers and social networking sites. Alejandro Martín García, Ph.D. and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, will lead this project.
- The impact of the pandemic on health professionals. This research group, headed by Teresa Moreno Casbas, Director of Nursing and Healthcare Research Unit, Carlos III Health Institute, aims to collect data from professionals who have come in contact with COVID-19 patients to learn about how the experience has impacted their mental health.
Finally, the projects supported in the Humanities area are:
- From the 1918 flu to COVID-19: a historical analysis in Europe and Latin America. The core goal of this project - coordinated by Maximiliano Fuentes Codera, Director of the Walter Benjamin, Memory and Exile Chair University of Girona - is to analyze the impact of the 1918 flu and the links between collective public policies and the discourses and processes developed from the beginning of the epidemic through the 1930s.
- New solidarity networks amid COVID-19: emotional communities, grassroots activism and mutual aid. Javier Moscoso Sarabia, Research Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Institute of History of the Spanish National Research Council, and his team will analyze the emergence, in Spain and Latin America, of new forms of community solidarity in the face of the new scenario.
- An ethical perspective of the algorithms used to decide on ICU admissions or geolocate people affected by COVID-19. This project, helmed by Ángel Puyol González, Professor of Ethics at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, will build a protocol to perform ethical audits of the algorithms used to prioritize COVID-19 related admission to ICUs and to determine via-mobile geolocation the degree to which the virus has spread in a specific area.
- Analyzing the results of a 'science under pressure'. This project wants to evaluate the reliability of the studies published during the pandemic to gauge whether the boost in scientific production has translated into higher rates of weaker results. Salvador Soto Faraco, ICREA research professor at the Department of Information and Communication Technologies of the School of Engineering at Pompeu Fabra University, is the principal investigator of the project.