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COVID-19: Open letter to cancer researchers

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

6 April 2020

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Cancer Research UK researcher in the lab

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic effect on society, researchers and Cancer Research UK. Here, our Executive Director of Research & Innovation, Iain Foulkes, our Chief Scientist, Professor Karen Vousden, and our Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, talk about how we’re responding to this crisis.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on all facets of public and private life. People with cancer are doubly vulnerable, at risk of contracting the virus and enduring a disruption to their standard of care. The lifesaving work of our researchers and clinicians has also been severely affected.

Universities are partially closed, laboratories have wound down their activities, experiments have stopped. Researchers are continuing to work productively from home, writing papers, analysing data, pulling together collaborations, reading the literature and generating ideas. But the progress of research will slow down, and this will inevitably have an impact on researchers’ careers and the lives of people affected by cancer.

Despite these difficulties, we’ve seen a surge of activity among our research community to help tackle COVID-19. Most of our clinical academics, including our Clinical Research Fellows, have been called to the frontline in hospitals all over the country. Many of our scientists are volunteering at COVID-19 testing hubs – a highly skilled workforce applying their knowledge to help with the routine but technical work of running the screens. We fully support these efforts, which demonstrate the resilience, resourcefulness and altruism of our researchers.

Cancer Research UK institutes and laboratories are repurposing their resources to help the COVID-19 response

Around the country, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) institutes and laboratories are repurposing their resources to help the COVID-19 response. They’ve donated equipment and reagents to national COVID-19 testing and have set up their own testing hubs. The Francis Crick Institute, of which we are a major funder, has just converted part of its laboratories into a COVID-19 testing service for NHS staff. The Institute’s researchers are hoping to be able to conduct around 3,000 tests in the first week, scaling up to 2,000 tests per day. We are now investigating whether we could set up similar facilities at other locations.

Many of our institutes and researchers have launched COVID-19-related projects. These include clinical research at our Experimental Cancer Research Centres (ECMCs) in Oxford, Liverpool and Manchester, and approaches to model virus spread and monitor how patients respond to the disease developed as part of our Accelerator Awards programme. We’ve also offered our clinical research infrastructure and expertise to the government so it might be used for clinical trials of COVID-19 therapeutics or vaccines. In Birmingham and Oxford, we’re supporting the UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring project – the first emergency COVID-19 reporting project in cancer patients in the world.

Beyond its direct impact on researchers and people with cancer, the COVID-19 crisis is having an unprecedented financial effect on CRUK. Our income is not backed by the government or an endowment; we are a fundraising charity and we rely on our supporters’ donations. Our shops have closed, our mass fundraising events have stopped, legacies have reduced. We expect our fundraising income to fall by at least 20–25% in the next financial year as a direct result of this pandemic – a reduction of around £120m.

We expect our income to fall by at least 20–25% in the next financial year as a direct result of this pandemic

We fund approximately 50% of all cancer research in the UK. To ensure we can continue to have this role in the long term, we need to shore up our income in the short term. We’re reducing our operational costs as much as possible and freezing recruitment. Our Executive Board has taken a 20% pay cut and we’re entering consultation with our staff to apply a similar reduction to their salaries and enrol a substantial number of people onto the government’s new furlough scheme. It’s likely that we’ll have to make more difficult decisions over the coming weeks and months.

Unfortunately, these steps are not enough for us to confidently protect our future. With great regret, we’ve also had to take immediate action to reduce our spending on research funding. Our institutes’ and existing response-mode funding will be cut by 5–10% and our centres and wider infrastructure by up to 20% this year. These cuts are substantial and will set back the cancer research effort within the UK, potentially for many years. We’ve also taken the decision to postpone any new funding commitments, which means no new research projects will be funded for at least the first half of this year.

Making funding cuts to our research – the core purpose of the charity in its mission to beat cancer – is the most difficult decision we’ve had to make. In doing this, we’ve tried to be as flexible as possible. We want to preserve the work and resources that will be most difficult to recover once lost and we want to avoid losing a generation of cancer researchers. For these reasons, we have decided to protect funding for studentships (clinical and non-clinical) as best we can. We’re offering our current grantholders increased flexibility to manage their grants, and we’re also giving our centres and institutes the flexibility to decide how to use their reduced pool of money to protect what’s most important in delivering their research.

We want to preserve the work and resources that will be most difficult to recover once lost and we want to avoid losing a generation of cancer researchers

We know these funding cuts will be devastating to the work of our scientists and clinicians, and that the scope and focus of these changes will raise many questions. We’ll be directly contacting everyone affected by the cuts. If we haven’t spoken to you already, we’ll be in touch over the next two weeks. We also welcome further thoughts and ideas from the community about how we can support them within the current constraints – please reach out to your usual CRUK contact. 

No one knows when we’ll emerge from this crisis, but when we do we must ensure that we are in a position to effectively support and restore our cancer research community. We are working with other charities and the government to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the charity sector. We’re also exploring innovative fundraising initiatives to rebuild income and enable future investment in cancer research. The support of the scientific community to these activities is immensely valuable. We need you now more than ever.

In the recovery phase, it will be critical that the government maintain their strong commitment to supporting science, research and innovation. Cancer will not stop for the COVID-19 pandemic; 160,000 lives will still be lost to cancer every year across the UK. Cancer must be a priority on the public and research agenda. Working together as a community, we have a powerful voice to ensure that this is the case.

Science is an incredible force, and, through epidemiology, molecular biology, immunology and virology, we’ll see it beat COVID-19. When this pandemic passes, it is vital we reinvigorate our own research efforts and bring to bear again the full power of science in beating cancer. We believe the public will support us in those efforts and we will be able to rebuild what we will have lost today.


Supporting early-phase COVID-19 clinical research

We can offer the support of our in-house infrastructure to deliver your early-phase clinical trials. If you are considering conducting COVID-19 clinical research and would like to collaborate with our Centre for Drug Development, please email [email protected]

Correction 8 April 2020: The article was corrected to clarify that universities are partially closed, not fully closed as the first version implied.