One in three dementia scientists consider leaving research due to COVID-19

  • Nearly a fifth (17%) of dementia researchers could leave the field because of COVID-19, with 35% considering leaving research altogether.
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK is calling on government to deliver its promise to double dementia research funding to save the progress being made.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is warning that COVID-19 is jeopardising efforts to find a life-changing treatment for dementia – as a survey reveals 95% of researchers have had projects and trials delayed because of the virus, with one in five having had research projects cancelled completely.

This World Alzheimer’s Month, the charity says government must now deliver on its election promise to double dementia research funding for a ‘Dementia Moonshot’, to stop pioneering researchers from leaving the field and ensure life-changing progress continues without delay.

The need for investment in dementia research has never been more urgent, following the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on people with the condition. A quarter of people who have died from COVID-19 also had dementia, and those with the condition are dying in greater numbers than in normal times with a 52% increase in excess deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite these shocking figures, the virus is threatening dementia research efforts.

A survey of dementia researchers carried out by the UK’s leading dementia research charity has revealed:

  • As a result of COVID-19, 95% of researchers have had their research projects or clinical trials delayed, and one in five have had research projects cancelled completely.
  • Nearly a third (29%) of researchers have had their funding suspended or cut, while 72% said future funding opportunities have decreased.
  • 17% of dementia researchers are considering leaving, or have left, the field. Over a third (35%) are considering leaving or have left academic research.
  • Only 15% of research group leaders have resumed activity at their labs at more than 50% capacity, while 13% have not yet returned to their workplaces.

Without life-changing preventions and treatments, one in three people born this year will develop dementia in their lifetime. The funding shortfall for medical research charities and reduction in research investment as a result of COVID-19 could cause damage that will take years to repair.

Research from the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) found that on average charities anticipate that it will take four and a half years before their spend on research in UK universities fully recovers to normal levels. Progress to find new treatments for dementia could be put back by several years – which is why a boost from government now is so critical.

During the 2019 election, the Conservative Manifesto had promised to double funding for dementia research to over £160 million a year, as part of a ‘Dementia Moonshot’ programme to find a cure for the condition. But since the pledge was made, there has been no further detail about how or when this funding will be made available.  

Alzheimer’s Research UK says government must outline its plans for the investment and has highlighted three key areas that need urgent funding to be able achieve the Moonshot’s goal. These are:

  • Developing digital tools that will enable us to detect the diseases, most commonly Alzheimer’s, that cause dementia, much earlier.
  • Creating new tools to predict and accelerate the success of clinical trials.
  • Establishing a UK network of 10 high-performing clinical trial sites – enabling more people affected by dementia to participate in trials and more trials to complete successfully, speeding up progress towards innovative new treatments.

While the charity is facing a drop in income by up to 45% due to the pandemic, Alzheimer’s Research UK is still investing over £42m into dementia research, across 168 projects. But in order to ensure these existing research commitments can continue, the charity has been unable to award any funding for new research. With less funding available across the board, it’s feared that critical progress made over the past decade in dementia research could be lost.

Ian Wilson, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“People affected by dementia desperately need our support. The promises made by our government to find a life-changing treatment for this devastating condition cannot be forgotten. Ten months ago the Conservatives vowed to double dementia research funding, and they now need to meet this commitment, followed by a new settlement in the comprehensive spending review this autumn.  

“While we recognise the extraordinary challenges faced since the government made its pledge, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people with dementia has only made the need to find life-changing treatments even more urgent. Sadly, COVID-19 could jeopardise the progress we’ve made and significantly delay promising breakthroughs. Our research shows that many promising studies have been delayed or stopped completely. Without a significant boost in investment, many dementia scientists may leave the field, taking valuable expertise and experience with them.

“Over the past decade, we have made significant progress in dementia research – life-changing treatments are within our reach. Now is the time for the government to deliver on its promise to double the dementia research budget.”

Carli Pirie, who has a 50% chance of having a genetic fault which puts her at high risk of developing dementia while she is young, said:

“I am standing with Alzheimer’s Research UK today, and urging government to come through on its promise to double dementia research funding. I need to know that everything is being done by this government to protect my family, and so many other families, from the heartbreak of dementia.

“I am doing all I can to change the future by taking part in dementia research, this includes undergoing various cognitive tests, PET and MRI scans and a lumbar puncture every two years. But this research costs money. Our government has a responsibility to support people affected by dementia, and one of the most effective ways to do that is by funding the research that will lead us to a cure. I do not want my commitment to dementia research to be in vain.  Dementia will not wait. This government must act now.”

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