UK funds coronavirus research for vulnerable global communities

The £7.2m fund will support UK university research into supporting refugees and children affected by the global health crisis

The UK government is to invest £7.2m in 20 new research projects to address the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable communities around the world.

Developing countries are facing immense pressures because of the global health crisis. The pandemic has not only put their health services under extreme pressure, but the global lockdown has damaged their economies disproportionately.

According to the UN, the number of people facing food shortages could double by the end of this year and about 150 million people worldwide lost full-time jobs in the first quarter of this year, with millions more expected to lose their livelihoods.

In June, the World Bank reported that emerging markets and developing economies would be buffeted by economic headwinds from multiple quarters – pressure on weak healthcare systems, loss of trade and tourism, dwindling remittances, subdued capital flows, and tight financial conditions amid mounting debt.

“Exporters of energy or industrial commodities will be particularly hard hit,” it said. “The pandemic and efforts to contain it have triggered an unprecedented collapse in oil demand and a crash in oil prices. Demand for metals and transport-related commodities such as rubber and platinum used for vehicle parts has also tumbled. While agriculture markets are well supplied globally, trade restrictions and supply chain disruptions could yet raise food security issues in some places.”

Global communities that are most at risk from the impact of coronavirus because of long-term conflict, food and water shortages and crowded living conditions will receive vital funding from the UK government.

The money will be used to develop new technology and processes to address the challenges faced by some of the world’s most vulnerable people, such as refugees and children.

One project run by the University of Oxford, in collaboration with the University of Cape Town, aims to develop a parental advice app for families affected by school closures in Africa due to the coronavirus.  In August, Oxford University announced more than 58 million downloads of its current Covid-19 parenting advice.

Following the government’s call for personal protective equipment (PPE), the University of Sheffield has been mass-manufacturing face shields, including 3D printing and disinfection. As of May 2020, the university said about £60,000 worth of PPE, including masks, gloves, aprons and eyewear, has been donated to front-line NHS staff treating patients with Covid-19, with significant donations from the Departments of Electronic and Electrical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

Another project to receive funding is from the University of Sheffield in conjunction with the UN Refugee Agency, which is looking at using 3D printing at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp to make PPE. The camp is home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees, and the project aims to protect those living in these crowded conditions who are most vulnerable to the virus.

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Andrew Thompson, international champion at UK Research and Innovation, said: “Covid-19 is demonstrating how the world’s biggest problems transcend rich and poor countries. To find lasting, sustainable solutions to help us all during this current pandemic, as well as to make us all more resilient for the future, we require global thinking, the mobilisation of global expertise and a global response. That is exactly what these new projects provide.

“Working together, researchers in the UK and across the global south will combine their knowledge and experience to develop innovative solutions to help empower local communities to overcome the wide-ranging challenges created by Covid.”

The £7.2m UK government funding will be managed by UK aid programmes the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, through UK Research and Innovation.

Business secretary Alok Sharma said: “Defeating coronavirus is a truly global endeavour, which is why we’re backing Britain’s scientists and researchers to work with their international counterparts to find tech solutions to treat and combat this virus around the world.

“The research projects we are backing today will ensure that we equip some of the most vulnerable communities with the resources they need to tackle Covid-19 and build their long-term resilience to respond to future pandemics, making us all safer.”

The funding follows the launch of the government’s ambitious R&D Roadmap in July, which committed to boosting international collaboration in research and development and establishing global scientific partnerships that will create health, social and economic benefits across the world.

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