In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) launched a Rapid Research Grant (RRG) in April 2020 to engage academia in research around the clinical management of the epidemic.
The grant aims to encourage academic research to strengthen clinical management and public health response against this virus.
Under the specialized research initiative, potential project proposals were invited to contribute to the much-needed understanding of the coronaviruses — the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and COVID-19.
Considering the time-crunch, a specialized panel was constituted and tasked to complete the shortlisting in 3-4 weeks. More than 300 applications were received for the grant. After independent reviews, 58 proposals were shortlisted based on the already announced eligibility criteria and other requirements.
Later, these proposals were jointly reviewed by experts of Medical and Biological Sciences, and Engineering and Technology. After rigorous review, 10 proposals were shortlisted for the last stage.
The budget for each RRG award is up to a maximum of Rs. 15 million (USD 100,000) with a maximum project duration of 12 months. These research projects offer a variety of pragmatic solution-oriented research, ranging from early detection diagnostic kits to immune response and understanding the virus’s behavior.
The proposals from 10 universities have been finalized. The University of Punjab won two grants — one for indigenous, low-cost production of ultra-pure Taq Polymerase and PCR mix for COVID-19 clinical diagnostic kits, and the other for the development of a reliable, economical, and high throughput serodiagnosis method for early detection of COVID-19.
COMSATS University Islamabad has won one grant for the development of RT-LAMP assay for early detection of COVID-19, while National Textile University, Faisalabad research will focus on the development of bioactive hospital textiles and protective suits against viruses and bacteria by immobilization of nanomaterials.
The University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore has won the research grant for epidemiological disease modeling and molecular surveillance of SARS-CoV-2, while DOW University of Health Sciences, Karachi will be working on IVIG production from the convalescent plasma of COVID-19 survivors, a low risk, high-efficiency passive immunization strategy against SARS-CoV-2. Interestingly, the test results of DOW university research are already very promising.
Other project winners include the University of Health Sciences, Lahore (Immunological Virology and Genetic Basis of COVID-19 Patients), Lahore University of Management Sciences (Mapping Immune Response to SARS-COv2 using a multidisciplinary approach), Aga Khan University, Karachi (Phylo- and Immuno- dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Pakistan: relating COVID-19 disease severity in with viral diversity) and Health Services Academy (HSA), Islamabad (Computational Modelling for COVID-19 Epidemic in Pakistan: Predictive Modelling of Disease Morbidity, Mortality, and Assessment of Demands on the Intensive Care Units).
To ensure high quality of research, faculty members from these universities were encouraged to collaborate with the private sector and industry, both within and outside Pakistan, as needed.
HEC funded thousands of research projects in the past, and this has led to more than 20,000 research articles published in recognized journals last year. With the provision of RRGs, HEC hopes that academic researchers will come forward to contribute to better health systems coping with real-life challenges.