Medical researchers – facing reduced government grants and funding in the wake of COVID-19 – are turning towards investors and philanthropy groups to keep their labs open and what they are finding is that these avenues are faster, more responsive and often more lucrative than more traditional research funding.
In August, the Commonwealth Bank announced a $500,000 donation for Dr James McMahon, from Monash University’s Central Clinical School and the Department of Infectious Diseases, Alfred Hospital to test whether the antiviral medicine, favipiravir, which has been used to treat influenza and also shown to be active against COVID-19, can help people recover more quickly from COVID.
According to Dr McMahon, the money was essential for this trial to proceed. “Due to the pace at which the COVID-19 crisis grew we needed to rapidly secure funding for clinical trials. The CBA were quick and agile, and saw the need to fund work that would translate into understanding treatment options for Australians with COVID-19. Organisations such as CBA can respond much more quickly than typical funding cycles for clinical trials that can take many months to decide on whether they will fund you or not.
"Often these applications don’t get funded, meaning more applications, trials not starting and inefficient use of time instead of getting on with the job of answering the important research questions ,” Dr McMahon said.
The donation has allowed Dr McMahon to recruit more than 90 people onto his treatment trial of the drug, Favipiravir, to see if it helps clear the virus more quickly and stop people needing to be admitted to hospital. The team has established methods to recruit people onto clinical trials in the earliest stages of the infection - while people are in their homes, which is the time when antivirals are most likely to have an effect.
The drug has already been given to thousands of people for other infections such as influenza, so it is known to be safe and can move quickly to the clinic if these trials are successful. Dr McMahon is currently seeking funding to expand the trial further - to more sites in Australia and also working with international collaborators.
A report released in October by the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes warns that fundraising efforts and commercial income in medical research have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AAMRI’s 2020 report says that past experience shows that economic downturns can affect philanthropic income by around 20 per cent.
In May, Snow Medical announced a $5.5m gift to the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne to plug coronavirus research gaps and fast-track economic recovery.
In April, the Minderoo Foundation committed $160 million with Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) to procure and distribute medical supplies and equipment, and to ramp up accurate RNA-based COVID-19 testing.
In The Conversation, Professor Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy, Australian National University, stated that Australia’s universities have been remarkably successful in building research output "but there are cracks in the funding foundations of that success, which are being exposed by the revenue shock of COVID-19” and government reforms which would pay for new student places with money currently spent on research, estimating the gap in funding that needs to be filled to maintain our current research output at around $4.7 billion.
Professor Ross Coppel, Deputy Dean and Director of Research in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, believes that university research needs to be as active as medical research institutes in the pursuit of the philanthropy dollar. “The funding gap for medical research is widening, and government is stretched financially with COVID. The only funding outlet left is philanthropy and Monash Medicine is ramping up its push to reach out to existing and new donors,” he said.
- Dr James McMahon explaining the VIRCO trial (video): www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoxwI6ilmkk
- More about the VIRCO trial: www.alfredhealth.org.au/research/research-areas/clinical-research-unit-cru/virco-trial
- Australian Financial Review 30 Nov 2020, "Monash Uni and CBA show how research can be financed quickly" link