Focus on COVID-19 has disrupted funding for regular health research, scientists fear

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined world leaders in a virtual pledging conference with the aim of raising at least 7.5 billion euros to fund global research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, where he highlighted Canada's contribution of more than 850 million dollars that will be invested in research and vaccine development, funding for the World Health Organization's work on treatment, and supporting developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic – May 4, 2020

Canada’s health-research granting agency has postponed its usual funding competition due to COVID-19, sparking concern the lack of money could disrupt work on cures that aren’t related to the pandemic.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) put off its regular $275-million competition this spring to focus on delivering federal grants related to the novel coronavirus.

Researchers rely on that funding, and Dr. Tarik Moroy, president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences, said the delay is likely to disrupt vital work on other health conditions.

READ MORE: Trudeau, other world leaders hold virtual summit pledging billions for COVID-19 vaccine

He told the House of Commons health committee last week that Canada is the only country that had a major national health research funding agency cancel its grants during the crisis.

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He acknowledged that Canada was quick to mobilize funds for research related to COVID-19, but worries about the long-term impacts for research into cancer, diabetes and other conditions.

“We worry that this is at the expense of other health research that then will still be necessary after the pandemic is over,” Moroy told the committee.

The granting agency says delaying the competition was a difficult decision, and that Moroy has a point about the effect delaying funds could have on researchers.

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“Cancelling the competition has an important impact on people who are trying to get their research going, they’re trying to maintain their lab,” said Adrian Mota, the associate vice-president of research at the agency. “They lose that opportunity for four to six months.”

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For people who rely on grants to pay their staff, losing out on the money could have a big impact, he said. Losing staff is especially difficult because they often have specialized skills, and it can be hard to get them back. That will mean training someone new when money finally moves again, Mota said.

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All that was weighed against the challenges of trying to move ahead during the pandemic, he said.

CIHR has been one of several granting agencies trying to quickly deliver funding to researchers to better understand COVID-19, its impact and possible treatments. Mota expects the federal agencies to give a total of about $200 million in COVID-19 grants.

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On top of that new workload, staff have had to figure out how to work from home, Mota said.

While the United States and Australia were able to handle their competitions remotely, CIHR worried that putting together evaluation panels of 20 to 30 scientists would be impossible, given they have little experience carrying out the process virtually.

Instead, it has put $31 million into trying to mitigate the impacts on researchers whose grants are set to expire.

“Admittedly, you’re never going to be able to capture all the cases,” Mota said.

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The rest of the grant money that was supposed to be allocated this spring will be added to future funding competitions.

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CIHR said it is committed to moving ahead with the next one, scheduled in the fall, even if it has to evaluate applications remotely.

Moroy told the committee Canada has already fallen behind other nations when it comes to research and innovation funding.

A 2017 report to the House of Commons finance committee revealed Canada has fallen out of the top 30 nations in total research spending, “lagging behind countries such as Czech Republic and Slovenia in terms of total research intensity,” Moroy said.

Health research will need even more support once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, he said.

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