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US the main driver of historic coronavirus R&D spending

Study author fears current focus on single virus could mean less for other infectious diseases

The US is by far the biggest global spender on research on coronaviruses, followed by the funding direct from European Union in second and from the UK in third place, according to an analysis of global grants.

Michael Head, lead author of the study and a global health researcher at the University of Southampton, looked at global public and philanthropic R&D spending on coronavirus work from more than 1,000 health funders between 2000 and March 2020.

His analysis, available as a preprint and under review at the Lancet Global Health journal, found the US spent $446 million (€400m), the vast majority of the total funding of $550 million over this period. Funding direct from the European Union was a distant second on $38.6m, with the UK the next nation state behind the US, with $22.1m of funding in third place.

The amounts of funding for coronavirus work prior to 2020 were “relatively sparse”, says Head, and generally in response to previous virus outbreaks.

“The temporal trends show funding is mostly in response to public health emergencies, for example SARS and MERS, and we have seen similar with funding for Ebola and Zika research,” he says. “It is all very reactive. The global health community has been very bad at implementing large-scale horizon-scanning R&D.”

Following the current Covid-19 pandemic there’s been a renewal of interest in coronavirus studies. For example, the UK government has pledged £23m for diagnostics via Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics and £50m for vaccines the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

This recent boost in funding comes against a backdrop of a longer-term decline.

“Over the last few years, for all infectious disease research, funding has been declining year on year,” Head says.

More funding for coronavirus could mean less is available for other disease. For example, he says, his research on two neglected tropical diseases—scabies, and onchocerciasis—in Ghana are on hold.

“I think it seems likely that within the dynamics of how funding is distributed, there will be an element of ‘taking money from Peter to pay Paul’,” he warns.