Charities including Cancer Research UK (CR UK) and the British Heart Foundation are warning that research funding will take a substantial hit in the wake of COVID-19 and that this will likely have significant consequences on survival.

CR UK said it could be forced to cut £150 million per year from its research funding “as the COVID-19 pandemic decimates its income”, which could “set back the progress we have seen in survival for people with cancer”.

Back in April the charity announced a cut of £44 million in funding across its research portfolio because of the pandemic, but is now preparing for a 30% fall in income in the 2020/21 financial year, with further losses in the next year, following temporary closures of its shops and major fundraising events being cancelled during the COVID-19 crisis.

Cutting £150 million each year would mean: a major contraction in the charity’s research infrastructure with potential closure of sites around the country; thousands of early-career scientists left unsupported, and their ideas for beating cancer unfunded; and cancelling plans to fund new projects in the short term, including new clinical trials, holding back the development of new cancer treatments, it said.

“Cuts of this magnitude to Cancer Research UK’s research funding will have a deep and long-lasting impact on our vibrant life-sciences industry, a sector that provided science-led solutions to the pandemic, highlighting the need for us to keep this strong and intact. A loss of £150 million is the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of clinical trials going unfunded,” noted Professor Charles Swanton, CR UK’s chief clinician.

The BHF has warned that the impact of the pandemic means that its net income, and resulting investment in new research, is likely to drop by up to 50% this year, from £100 million to around £50 million.

Such a sharp fall “could have a catastrophic impact on UK cardiovascular research, the research careers of thousands of young scientists, and advances in diagnostics, treatments and cures for people with heart and circulatory diseases”, it said.

The charity funds over half of non-commercial research into heart and circulatory diseases in the UK, but the loss of income from shop closures and cancellation of fundraising events “has created the biggest crisis in its 60-year history”.

Furthermore, it could take several years for funding to return to pre-pandemic levels, the charity warned.

“Ultimately, patients and the public will suffer as the discovery and development of new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating heart and circulatory diseases will slow. The lifeblood of making advances through research are the scientists we fund. We could potentially lose a generation of researchers because of the reduction in our funding, and this loss could take a long time to recover,” said Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation.

“There is also the wider impact for the UK’s role at the forefront of scientific research. Such a steep reduction in investment will inevitably diminish the country’s reputation as a world leader in developing medical breakthroughs that save lives. We cannot afford to let this happen during a pandemic which itself has underlined the critical role research plays.”

Chief executives from the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), including CR UK, the BHF and Parkinson’s UK, are now calling on the government to introduce a Life Sciences Partnership Fund and match charity funded research for the next three years.

Medical research charities accounted for £1.9 billion (51%) of non-commercial research funding in the UK last year, but the AMRC is projecting a £310 million shortfall in this spend over the next year and expect it to take nearly five years for funding to return to previous levels.

“It is imperative that the Government urgently works with medical research charities to come to a solution, so that decades of investment in UK research is not lost in a matter of months,” stressed Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive.