LONDON – COVID-19 is posing a real threat to the viability of medical charities in the U.K., which collectively fund 17,000 scientists and invest more than £1.3 billion (US$1.6 billion) per annum in research.
One-third of the 140 members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) expect to see a fall of 40% or more in their income, as a result of the epidemic forcing the closure of charity shops, the cancellation of events and a decline in donations.
More than half of AMRC members have had to stop, pause or delay most of their clinical trials as a result of COVID-19, and say they are at risk of not being able to restart them. AMRC estimates 126,000 patients are affected.
At the same time, more than two-thirds of AMRC’s members are deferring upcoming grant rounds and withdrawing future funding.
The significant losses in fundraising income will have a long-term impact on the life science sector as a whole, said Aisling Burnand, AMRC chief executive. She is calling for the government to make emergency funding available to ensure research charities stay afloat.
“The economic impact poses a real threat to the viability of charity-funded research, both now and in the future,” Burnand said.
The extent of the potential long-term damage is highlighted by Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which funds 50% of all cancer R&D in the country. The charity has announced big cuts in grant funding, staffing levels and support for its institutes and cancer care centers.
CRUK expects its income to fall by at least 25% in the next year, a reduction of around £120 million.
“The COVID-19 crisis is having an unprecedented financial effect on CRUK,” said Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation. “Our income is not backed by the government or an endowment; we are a fundraising charity and we rely on our supporters’ donations.”
That has forced CRUK to take immediate action and it is cutting grant funding and funding for its institutes by 5% to 10% and its centers and wider infrastructure by 20%.
The executive board has taken a 20% pay cut, and CRUK is entering negotiations with staff to cut salaries by 20%.
“These cuts are substantial and will set back the cancer research effort within the U.K., potentially for many years,” Foulkes said.
He promised a flexible approach to making the cuts. Centers and institutes will be allowed to decide how to use their reduced funding to protect their most important work and support for studentships will be maintained.
“We want to preserve the work and resources that will be the most difficult to recover once lost, and we want to avoid losing a generation of cancer researchers,” said Foulkes.
Similarly, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) said clinical research staff who are directly funded can choose to devote their time and the time of any support staff to COVID-19 research, while institutions can allocate any currently uncommitted funds to work on the coronavirus.
CRUK, BHF and other members of AMRC have switched resources into the national effort to control COVID-19, establishing patient support services, seconding 1,000 clinical research staff to work in the National Health Service and refocusing programs to carry out COVID-19-related research.
Charities including the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, Asthma UK and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust are playing a key role in providing advice to patient groups that are at risk of being most seriously affected if they contract the coronavirus.
Those contributions can only continue if charities remain resourced and effective, Burnand said. “[This] is likely to require support from the government,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wellcome Trust, is applying its heft as the largest medical research charity in Europe to help raise $8 billion by the end of April to cover the shortfall in funding for COVID-19 research.
Developing vaccines, therapies and diagnostics is the only way to bring the pandemic to an end, said Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome. “This is the only exit strategy, but we do not have the funding we need to execute it,” he said.
The initiative is aimed at companies, with Wellcome telling them that donating to the fund “is the best investment your company can make today.” Farrar said, “We want business leaders to give a small proportion of the money they are dedicating to coping with the crisis, to solving it.”
The need for $8 billion to get vaccines and drugs out of the lab and onto the market has been identified by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent body convened by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
Wellcome itself has contributed $50 million to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a $125 million fund it set up with the Gates Foundation and the credit card company Mastercard. The accelerator aims to play a catalytic role by speeding up evaluation of new and repurposed drugs and biologics to treat COVID-19.