Vital coronavirus research, including a project tracking variants in India, has had its funding reduced by up to 70% under swingeing cuts to the UK overseas aid budget.
One of Britain’s leading infectious disease experts said the UK government cuts were certain to damage attempts to tackle the virus and track new variants.
Oliver Pybus, a professor of evolution and infectious disease at the University of Oxford and part of the team that identified the Kent and Brazilian Covid variants, said: “A 70% cut for a huge international consortium with a budget of £20m and over 80 employees – this is devastating.”
The cut would make his project unviable and in effect “kill it dead”, he said. A Covid surveillance project in Brazil, which, like India, has been hit by a huge surge in cases linked in part to new variants, is also affected by cuts.
A second academic, Prof Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick, said cuts were “removing funding from existing projects that were helping to support sequencing in other parts of the world”. Young has had a project on the treatment of Covid patients in the UK and Indonesia completely cut as a result of the aid budget being slashed.
On Monday, a report from the all-party parliamentary group on Covid will call for a reversal of coronavirus-related aid cuts, it is understood.
Britain announced last year that it would cut aid spending from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%, amounting to a reduction of more than £4bn and triggering fury from five former prime ministers as well as a series of other politicians and experts. The cuts are to the UK’s Official Development Aid (ODA) budget, which is distributed by a number of Whitehall departments with a portion funding international research.
Whitehall has yet to confirm the full range of programmes affected, but it is clear that the axe is not falling evenly. Details of severe cuts to humanitarian aid in Yemen and Syria were followed by reductions in funding for polio research, clean water projects and girls’ education.
Pybus, who is also lead investigator at the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium that published a recent paper tracking the spread of cases in the UK during the first wave, warned it would take years to rebuild fractured international networks and relationships, even if the aid cuts were reversed.
“International work of this kind takes time and effort to nurture. They are central to the UK’s aim to be a global leader in pandemic preparedness. Links that take a stroke of a pen to defund will take years to rebuild. If the UK is prepared to do this to their current partners in pandemic preparedness, what message does that send to its potential prospective ones?”
Team members on his project have been providing analysis and support for Covid sequencing teams in Gujarat, one of the hardest hit regions in India, and Bangladesh. More than 6,400 people have been killed by Covid in the province.
The multi-disciplinary project was initially looking at the disease transmission risk in poultry farming, the source of avian flu, but its work was also directly supporting efforts to do genomic analysis and track Covid variants in India and Bangladesh. The project has also provided public outreach to combat vaccine hesitancy in London’s Gujurati community.
The hub had been helping to develop the concept of One Health committees in India to prevent separation of different ministries, and create a holistic approach to disease control and prevention.
The research project is funded under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which is financed by the ODA and managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The inter-disciplinary project was launched two years ago as part of a five-year £20m project to look at emerging epidemics and antimicrobial resistance linked to poultry farming in south Asia, but in recent months some of its staff have pivoted to Covid-19. It has over 50 international partners in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Last month UK Research and Innovation announced that its ODA allocation from the business department had significantly reduced its planned expenditure for 2021-22, leading to a reduced £125m budget and a £120m gap between allocations and commitments to grant holders.
The Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said: “We have all seen the heart-breaking scenes in India this week as the country faces a deadly second wave. Slashing funding for research that is helping to track new Covid variants there is both unforgivable and incredibly short-sighted. When it comes to helping India, the government is giving with one hand and taking with the other.”
Young’s project with Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, also supported by the GCRF, had the potential to improve clinical outcomes for patients, he said. He said another project for which funding had been declined would have compared the severity and mortality of Indian patients with Covid-19 residing in India and the UK. The application had been made under the UK-India Covid-19 Partnership initiative.
The devastating second wave in India has been attributed in part to the B117 variant – first identified in the UK – which had ramped up cases in the state of Punjab. Another possible culprit is a homegrown variant, B1617, with two further mutations detected in Maharashtra, the worst affected state.
This variant, B1617, is also believed to be triggering surges in Bangladesh and Pakistan and led many countries, including the US, Canada and the UK, to advise citizens against travelling to the region.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been approached for comment.