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UK ‘must spend more’ on coronavirus R&D

Country commits millions to fight Covid-19 but experts say much more is needed

UK researchers have called for more money to research the coronavirus that has swept across the world in recent weeks, shutting schools, universities and even entire regions.

Experts welcomed prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on 6 March that the country is putting £46 million towards diagnostics and vaccines, but say vastly more is needed to fight the Covid-19 disease caused by the virus. More coronavirus spending is expected in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s (pictued) first budget on 11 March.

“Forty-six million pounds sounds like a lot, but as a proportion of GDP this is nothing,” Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health, told Research Fortnight. “We will need more.”

Pankhania, a former consultant in communicable disease control at Public Health England, said the UK should be paying a proportion of GDP into the Covid-19 response efforts, and pushing other nations to do the same.

“If everybody contributed 0.1 per cent of GDP it will go very, very far. This is a global concern.”

With researchers scrambling to track and fight the outbreak, countries are increasingly taking draconian steps to restrict its spread. Italy has quarantined its north, restricting the movements of millions, a move which follows China’s lockdown of Wuhan and other areas, and sweeping restrictions in Iran. Universities in all three nations have either closed entirely or moved to online-only teaching.

In the UK, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama became the first higher education institution to close due to Covid-19 after a member of staff tested positive. It was due to reopen as Research Fortnight went to press.

Other universities in the country are to stay open “at this stage”, health minister Matt Hancock said ahead of a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on 9 March.

On 6 March the World Health Organization’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board called for at least $8 billion (£6.1bn) of new funding to fight the crisis. This includes $2bn for work at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) to develop a vaccine and another $4bn for therapeutics and diagnostics.

The UK’s latest pledge of £46m includes £20m for Cepi, following the country’s previous pledge of £30m for the organisation.

Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of Cepi said “these funds will be fully allocated by the end of March and without immediate additional financial contributions the vaccine programmes we have begun will not be able to progress and ultimately will not deliver the vaccines that the world needs”.

Nick Chapman, head of the Policy Cures Research think tank, welcomed the “meaningful initial funding” for vaccine R&D but stressed it is “only a fraction of the investment that is likely to be needed from the UK government”.

Virology experts at several institutions have also warned that, should a vaccine be developed, the UK lacks the ability to produce enough of it quickly and will depend on other countries. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight