The University of Helsinki extends its heartfelt thanks to all the organisations and individuals who have contributed to coronavirus research. Donated funds have been allocated to research groups in accordance with the wishes of the donors, while the rector has decided on funds donated to the University to be freely distributed.
In September 2022, Rector Sari Lindblom decided to allocate funds to a research group headed by Associate Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases Tarja Sironen out of the freely distributable donations targeted at coronavirus-related research.
“Since February 2020, my research group has focused on investigating COVID-19. We have studied the virus’s mechanisms of transmission, the immune response it evokes and the effectiveness of vaccines, the causes underlying different clinical pictures, the suitability of various animal and cell models for COVID-19 research as well as, through collaborative projects, potential viral inhibitors and vaccines in these models,” says Tarja Sironen, describing her group’s research.
“One of the central research questions in coronavirus research is the mutation of the virus alongside the progress of the pandemic, and the spread of various variants in humans as well as in a range of animal species, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a unique capacity for infecting several species. Leaps from one species to another accelerate the genetic drift of the virus, which makes the virus even more challenging to fight,” Sironen notes.
“We have investigated the spread of the virus to various animal species and identified in the process a number of novel coronaviruses in European rodent and bat species. Some of them resemble SARS-CoV-2, others the coronaviruses that cause seasonal human flu. However, we are unable to estimate, solely on the basis of viral genome data, whether these viruses are potential pathogens,” says Sironen, elaborating on her group’s research.
Sironen’s group will spend the funding now granted on a further three-month study to investigate the sequences and structure of the surface proteins of these new coronaviruses.
“Our goal is to determine which of these coronaviruses are potentially capable of infecting human cells. Such knowledge also supports projects ongoing in other research groups in preparation for the emergence of novel coronaviruses,” Sironen says.
Boost from donated funds amidst rapid change
A research group headed by Professor of Infectious Diseases Anu Kantele and Professor Olli Vapalahti was among the first to initiate coronavirus research at the University of Helsinki. This work still continues.
At the beginning, donations constituted a substantial share of the funding for the group’s work.
“Donations were invaluable to us, as they made it possible to embark on a new research area without delay,” Anu Kantele praises the donors.
Other research funders, including the Academy of Finland and foundations, were slower to respond to the new circumstances. Funding available to research groups is usually tied to projects for which funding has been specifically awarded; even funds yet to be spent cannot be allocated to entirely new topics. Instead, each project must apply for separate funding.
The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes have not gone anywhere, even though vaccinations and a large share of the population contracting the disease have altered the course of the pandemic. While there remains plenty of research to do, large-scale funds awarded by various research funders are now coming to an end.
“In the early stages, the rapid initiation of research provided much-needed information on the course of the disease and the immune response, speeding up the development of key laboratory techniques. At the same time, it also meant that other projects were left standing when, for example, doctoral researchers suddenly had to transition into coronavirus specialists, as the number of skilled researchers was limited. Now we are in a situation where the funding applied for in the early stages is coming to an end, and a decision has to be made on how and what to continue. There remains a great deal to investigate, as the virus is constantly one step ahead of us,” Kantele adds.
Professor of Infectious Diseases Anu Kantele also heads the joint vaccine research centre of the University and HUS Helsinki University Hospital.
Tarja Sironen is an associate professor whose position is shared by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine. Sironen is also the vice-dean in charge of public engagement at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Sironen’s group has received funding from donations also in 2020 and 2021. By a decision by Rector Sari Lindblom, Sironen’s group received €12,240 in September.
Other recipients of funding from donated funds for coronavirus research include research groups and projects headed by Professor of Virology Kalle Saksela, Professor Olli Carpén, Academy of Finland Research Fellow Giuseppe Balistreri and University Lecturer Heli Nordgren.
Donations intended for coronavirus research can still be made either to be freely distributed by the University or targeted at a specific research group. Further information is available online at www.helsinki.fi/en/cooperation/support-us.