COVID-19: Medical Charities Warn of a 'Generation of Lost Research'

Peter Russell

June 24, 2020

Health charities have warned that the fallout from COVID-19 has devastated their finances, and have made a passionate plea to the Government to step in to help support crumbling resources.

More than 150 charities face a drastic series of cuts to research projects unless central funds were made available to ease them through the pandemic, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) said.

Medical research charities accounted for £1.9 billion (51%) of non-commercial medical research money in the UK, the body said.

However, unless they received a bailout, they projected a £310 million shortfall over the next year.

In April, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a £750 million support package for frontline charities. However, the AMRC replied to warn that the announcement could "falsely reassure the public and others that the charity sector as a whole is being financially supported". The letter called for "targeted and tailored emergency funding to be made available".

Government Should 'Reboot Charity Research'

In a briefing this week hosted by the Science Media Centre (SMC), charities warned of losing a "generation of leadership" for research into diseases.

The AMRC and its member charities have now proposed a Life-Sciences Partnership Fund in which the Government would provide a level of matched funding for future charity research over the next 3 years.

Aisling Burnand, chief executive of AMRC, said: "Medical research charities stepped up to support the country as the pandemic hit. Now it is time for Government to step up and help reboot charity funded research that saves and improves countless lives."

In April, Cancer Research UK cut £44 million funding across its research portfolio because of the pandemic. It said a re-evaluation of its financial position raised the prospect of an additional £150 million of funding cuts each year while the charity recovers.

"If we take this hit, it will have a decade's worth of impact, and it will slow down the progress for people with cancer, particularly in terms of survival, new therapies, and new treatments," Michelle Mitchell, the charity's chief executive explained in a briefing to the SMC.

She said it would "hamper the Government's ambition" for "science to be at the forefront of the economic recovery".

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation (BHF), warned that the "shockwaves from such a drop in funding for heart circulatory disease will be profound, and stall progress in making the discoveries that patients urgently need".

The BHF said that its annual research budget could halve from £100 million to around £50 million.

The Alzheimer's Society said, in common with other health charities, it was estimating it would take four-and-a-half years for its finances to recover following the pandemic. Hannah Churchill, its research communications officer, said: "Over 90% of our funded researchers told us they were concerned about the future of dementia research, with good reason. We are not alone in having to pause our research funding programme and reduce research investment."

Charities said that while individuals had mainly maintained their contributions through regular standing orders, the closure of their high street shops, and cancellation of fund-raising events, had depleted their income, and put future research projects in jeopardy.

Cancellation of the BHF's regular London to Brighton bike ride had created "the biggest crisis in its 60 year history".

'Working Closely With Charities': Government

The AMRC said discussions with the Government on a Partnership Fund were in their early stages, but Aisling Burnand said they were committed to "land this at the heart of Government".

She said they were seeking £310 million this year, with a "possibility of needing further funding… over at least a minimum of 3 years to allow the sector to recover".

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care  said: "The UK is home to globally-recognised medical research charities, which are an integral part of our world-leading life sciences sector.

"We are working closely with medical research charities to understand the impact of the pandemic on the sector and identify how we can work together, ensuring patients continue benefiting from charity-funded research."

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