COVID-19 Has Wiped Out Cancer Research Fundraising

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc


February 17, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford in England. I'd like to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on cancer research. We've talked previously about the physical and temporal impact — how, during the early stages of the pandemic, literally all clinical cancer research was stopped.

It was a knee-jerk reaction because all of us were uncertain at that stage about the impact of cancer treatment on the immune system and therefore its potential effect on how the virus might transmit and what damage it might cause to individuals. Nurses and doctors were transferred from the research front line to the clinical front line, so there was a big workforce impact. It was impossible to move around, and thus in terms of monitoring studies, the clinical research associates and others found it very difficult to move from collecting data in a typically paper-based system to an electronic-based system.

But what I'd like to discuss in more detail today is the impact of COVID-19 on funding for cancer research. We know that many charitable bodies around the world make an enormous contribution to supporting basic translational and clinical cancer research. In the United Kingdom, Cancer Research UK, one of the largest cancer charities in the world, has projected an annual loss of income of roughly 200 million pounds, from around 450 million pounds a year to around 250 million — almost a halving of income from pre- to post-COVID. This is because they've had to cancel a whole range of charitable events that require people to come together. The 600 or so charity shops that they run on Britain's High Streets are enormously successful and contribute to their bottom line but have closed because of lockdown.

This massive impact has been seen not only in the United Kingdom. The Canadian Cancer Society has reported a drop of around $100 million in their annual income — another halving. The American Cancer Society has reported a drop in annual income of around $200 million.

These are vast sums but the losses are believable. The charities cannot go full-speed in terms of their normal fundraising activities because all of the world has been distracted and diverted. The eyes of the world are focused on COVID-19, and cancer has been pushed aside.

We need to think about what we can do about this because the impact on fundamental translational clinical research will be enormous and will echo forward for many years. Some have projected that it will take 4 or 5 years for the charities to regain sufficient financial momentum to catch up to where they were pre-COVID. I know this affects not only cancer charities but all the other charitable organizations out there.

The result will be lives blighted and potentially lives lost. Lives blighted: a generation of young cancer researchers unable to get funding, unable to kickstart their careers, unable to build as I did as a young chap, receiving significant funds from the charitable sector to build my research group and to allow me to establish myself, to build that platform, and to be able to make a wider contribution to cancer research and cancer care. And lives lost, because we know that these organizations provide the fundamental lifeblood for new cancer drugs, new biomarkers, new innovations that we can apply in the front line to cancer treatments, not only tomorrow and next week, but for several years down the line. With a significant dip in funding, it undoubtedly will have a negative impact.

What can we do? We can appeal to governments. Can governments form some kind of partnership with the major medical charities to help fill the hole? Those remarkable volunteers who put so much of their time, energy, and intellect into fundraising — when it's safe, we need you back. And those of us in the cancer research community who benefit so much from the hard work and efforts of the charities' volunteers, we must think how we can contribute, how we can add our voices, how we can help support and demonstrate the unutterable value of charitable giving in this sector.

This is something for us all to think about in the post-COVID world as we re-emerge, blinking into the sunlight, hopefully in a vaccinated world. We mustn't forget the charitable sector and the incredibly important impact that it has on the future of cancer research and cancer care for us all.

I would be happy to take any comments, and of course, I ask each and every one of you in your own nations and countries to learn how you can help to support your national, local, and regional cancer charities.

Thanks very much indeed for listening. For now, Medscapers, ahoy.

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc, is a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. He is recognized internationally for his work in the research and treatment of colorectal cancer and has founded three university spin-out companies: COBRA Therapeutics, Celleron Therapeutics, and Oxford Cancer Biomarkers. In 2002, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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