Pharma industry calls on UK to support medical research charities

More than 30 pharmaceutical companies and business groups have written to UK prime minister Boris Johnson urging the government to plug a £310m financing gap faced by medical research charities that work closely with industry to fund and develop drugs.

Companies at the forefront of Covid-19 drug development, including AstraZeneca, Novartis, Pfizer and Roche, wrote to Mr Johnson on Tuesday to urge him to take “urgent action to preserve the vital contribution medical research charities make to life sciences in this country”.

Since April, the charity research sector has been calling for the government to extend support packages it has offered to frontline charities, universities and businesses, at a time when coronavirus drug and treatment development has become a central tenet of political strategy around the world.

“We recognise the government’s clear drive to put R&D at the heart of the UK’s economic and social recovery, but we have yet to see clarity in this around what this means for the future of charity funded research,” said the letter seen by the Financial Times. “By preserving charity-funded research in the short-term, government can help create high-quality research, innovation infrastructure and skills benefiting the UK economy in the longer term.”

The letter marks the latest chapter in a series of pleas made by and on behalf of medical research charities ahead of major funding decisions due to be made in the autumn.

Pharmaceutical companies are supporting calls for government to plug the estimated £310m funding shortfall faced by research charities in the current financial year, with further cash injections in the subsequent three years. 

“It is vital that our health research charities are supported through this challenging period if we are to achieve our long-term ambitions for UK life sciences,” said Richard Torbett, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, which signed the letter. “Advances in research depend on collaboration between industry, academia, the NHS and charities, with each playing a unique role.”

Medical research charities have invested £14bn in life science research since 2008, including £1.9bn in 2019, according to the letter, but are now facing a precipice driven by a collapse in income from fundraising. 

Other vital contributions made by the charity sector include investing in early stage research, thereby de-risking the field and encouraging future investment by industry, according to the letter, as well as supporting the careers of thousands of young scientists.

“So far we’ve seen nothing [from the government] to support charity-funded medical research — it’s falling between the cracks,” said Cat Ball, head of policy at the Association of Medical Research Charities, another signatory to the letter.

Ms Ball said that charities would match any money provided by the government to the Life Sciences-Charity Partnership Fund, set up by the AMRC. “Instead of it being a bailout, we’re really keen to work in partnership with government,” she added. 

Earlier this year, Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, told the FT that the charity faced the prospect of an “incredibly difficult decision” over whether to cut its research budget by £150m a year.

The government responded in a statement that it had already given the charity sector £750m in emergency funding since the start of the pandemic. It added: “We are working closely with medical research charities to understand the impact of the pandemic, identifying how we can work together and ensure patients benefit from charity-funded research.”

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