Published: 28 March 2022
The NIHR has published its latest annual report highlighting its milestones and achievements during 2020/21 - a year like no other. The report celebrates how NIHR responded to the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to fund and support world-class and ground-breaking research.
Writing in the forward to the report, Professor Chris Whitty and Dr Louise Wood, state: “During a year in which our lives were dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, NIHR played a central role in underpinning the nation's scientific response, benefiting patients in the UK and globally.”
In addition to showcasing the breadth of activity and research that NIHR supports and delivers, highlights in this year’s report include:
Funding research to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic
NIHR mobilised quickly to fund rapid research into COVID-19, ensuring swift access to funds for a number of pivotal research studies in the UK and in low and middle income countries (LMICs), with £108 million allocated to COVID-19 research in total, including studies funded by the Vaccines Task Force.
Funding took place through a series of ‘rapid response’ initiatives with UK Research and Innovation - funding six projects focused on developing and testing vaccines and therapies and 21 further studies, including the first drug trial in primary care - and ongoing call where applications were reviewed on a rolling basis, with a number of highlight notices calling for research proposals on specific topics.
As the pandemic developed, we turned our attention to research to manage the pandemic beyond the acute phase and the emerging phenomenon ‘long COVID’. The NIHR also played a key role in support of the National Core Studies group, commissioning research and supporting clinical trials that were identified as high priorities by the group.
How NIHR research improved care during the pandemic
NIHR funded or supported COVID-19 studies, including three national platform trials of COVID-19 treatments, that delivered evidence that directly informed patient care during the course of the pandemic.
On June 16 2020, RECOVERY identified the first drug that reduced mortality in hospitalised patients with respiratory complications of COVID-19 and the REMAP-CAP trial showed that a number of drugs were effective at treating COVID-19 in critically ill patients with results showing that the combination could reduce the relative risk of death by 24% when administered to patients within 24 hours of entering intensive care. SIREN showed that previous infection with COVID-19 protects against future infection.
Funding and delivering vital vaccines research
NIHR research funding played a critical role in the development of the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with the NIHR Clinical Research Network supporting the rapid delivery of trials for this vaccine and four other vaccines.
As early as April 2020, the experimental Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine – developed with NIHR support including initial funding of £2.2 million - was administered to the first two healthy volunteers. By November, trials showed that this vaccine, administered in two doses, was 70.4% effective at least 14 days after dosage.
The UK was the first nation to approve a COVID-19 vaccine thanks to our support. Over 24.5 million people in the UK had received a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of March 2021.
In addition, 10,000 UK volunteers were invited to join the Phase 3 study for the Novavax vaccine from the NHS COVID-19 Vaccine Research Registry, developed in partnership with the NIHR. The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine was 89.3% effective at preventing COVID-19, including that it was effective against the new variants of concern.
At the forefront of delivering COVID-19 research in the NHS
Through setting up a national prioritisation system and capitalising on being embedded in the NHS, the NIHR has been able to rapidly recruit participants to urgent COVID-19 research studies by establishing a UK-wide portal for applying for funding and/or support for urgent COVID-19 research. In March, we announced that NIHR had recruited 1 million participants in COVID-19 research, across more than 180 studies.
NIHR also recruited the first patient in the world to a number of international COVID-19 studies by the life sciences industry, such as a trial of a protein kinase inhibitor drug by Novartis and a study of a new monoclonal antibody treatment developed by AstraZeneca.
Funding, enabling and delivering world-leading health and social care research
Although COVID-19 was the main UK and global priority in this year, the NIHR continued to support research to prevent, diagnose and treat multiple diseases and health conditions as well as social care, health service delivery and public health work.