The Chronicle Gambia

Research at MRC Gambia Threatened by British Cut in Assistance Funding

Citing the Covid-19 economic hardship, Boris Johnson’s Government has cut about £4 billion from the United Kingdom’s Official Development Assistance funding (ODA). Such a cut disengages the UK’s essential support in scientific research on poorer countries like The Gambia. As halting the ODA funds means the British government takes away a lot of the funding, enabling research to happen. It is a bad smash to institutions like The Gambia’s Medical Research Council (MRC), a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) unit.

The U.K. government has made major cuts to the Official Development Assistance funding (ODA). Chancellor Rishi Sunak has cut the U.K. foreign aid budget from 0.7% of the British national income to 0.5%. Worst for programs benefitting from the U.K assistance, the statement on planned spending for 2021-22 did not explicitly explain future commitments for countries or programs. Meaning it is not sure if the British government intends to augment the aid or even restore it to the level of 2020-2021.

The cut to the ODA budget has overall been by 30%. However, for many research projects for Low- and Middle-income Countries, it has been a cut of 70%.  The British government only intends to distribute £8.1 billion Instead of £12 billion.  “Tragic blow” to key areas like research. Campaigners accuse the British government of having “lost its moral compass.”

For example, this has impacted the very promising trial combining the RTS, S/AS01E and SMC trials in Burkina and Mali already mentioned. The RTS, S/AS01E trial first started in The Gambia 20 years ago. The Medical Research Council (MRC) unit in The Gambia has been researching infectious diseases since 1947.

The Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council, Professor Fiona Watt visiting the MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM from the 23rd to 25th April 2019.

Impact on the MRC research projects on Covid-19

About six weeks ago, Chancellor Rishi Sunak office sent an email to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) saying, “The money that we promised you to continue this trial will not becoming, and you will have to stop your study.” Meaning even MRC Gambia will be impacted by the drastic cut of the Boris Johnson government.

Meanwhile, scientists in The Gambia and Uganda MRC units and across the African continent have been at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. They have established laboratory-testing capacity and are now monitoring the spread of the virus, assessing risk factors for hospitalization and death in their particular populations, sequencing viral genomes, detecting and monitoring novel variants, rolling out and evaluating vaccination programs.

This work is essential not just for controlling the Covid-19 locally but also for informing the British overall understanding of how the virus evolves and spreads, predicting when and where the current pandemic will end, and preventing the next one.

Much of this work has been funded by the UK government through the Official Development Assistance. Despite a legally embedded commitment to spend at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, this year, we will spend only 0.5 per cent (of a significantly reduced total).

Eleanor Riley is a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh. According to her, the resulting cuts have not fallen equally across the aid budget. Research funding has taken a disproportionally large hit. For the MRC, this means a shortfall of £120m for its current commitments, meaning that the British government indirectly stops ongoing projects in The Gambia, Uganda and many other low and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America midstream. Besides, no new collaborative projects – on Covid-19 or on diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, which collectively killed at least as many people in the last year as Coronavirus – can begin.

Professor Eleanor Riley believes that apart from the enormous waste of time, money and effort that this represents, the damage to the UK’s reputation as a trusted research partner is incalculable.

For a sum less than two days’ running costs for NHS Test and Trace, we have abandoned the very people who can help us out of this mess. If we don’t invest in global health research for their sakes, maybe we should consider doing it for our own?” Professor Eleanor Riley lamented.

A petition at the British Parliament, more voices in support of full aid

Some British MPs are trying to stop the Official Development Assistance funding from becoming a permanent cut. There is a petition going to the British parliament, but it is unlikely to change the current situation. Yet, making a fuss might make people in the UK realize what is going on and what that means.

Senior Tory MP for North Thanet Sir Roger Gale vilified the British Government’s “disgraceful decision” to cut the foreign aid budget “at the very moment countries need the help most.”

Sir Roger said, “The 0.7% GNI (Gross National Income) is enshrined in law. It was put there for a good reason. It is affordable. We are one of the strongest economies in the world, and frankly, if we cannot find 0.7% of a reduced GNI…then I fail to see how we can describe ourselves as a powerful nation post-Brexit – which is what we keep being told we are.”

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Professor Sir Brian Greenwood was director of the MRC research unit in The Gambia in 1980. He spent 15 years working in The Gambia and was in the secrets of linking The Gambia’s MRC unit to the London

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Professor Sir Brian Greenwood was director of the MRC research unit in The Gambia in 1980

School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Sir Brian Greenwood said, “This is unethical because you are putting people at risk. Furthermore, it is very damaging to the reputation of everybody involved, damaging to the UK, damaging to our science. The cut has fallen particularly hard on the research projects. We have tried desperately hard and have managed to find money from elsewhere to keep the RTS, S/AS01E trial going, but others are not being as successful.

The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols condemned the plans to cut foreign aid on LBC: “We must look at how we behave…what this decrease from 0.7% to 0.5% means is our overseas aid has dropped by a third.

Where does ‘our own’ stop? Does our own stop at the Channel? Are we not a global community? Don’t we depend upon each other?” Archbishop Vincent Nichols pleaded.

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