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How COVID-19 has created new opportunities for respiratory research and innovation

As the annual ERS Congress takes place, virtually of course, Kay Boycott (Chief Executive of Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation) considers the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to drive forward game-changing research and innovation for respiratory disease, and the need for public funders to redouble their efforts to tackle its impact.  

COVID-19 as a driver for game-changing investment in respiratory research and innovation 

In 2020, the impact of respiratory illness on the world has been brought to the forefront. COVID-19, a viral, largely respiratory infection, has brought the world to a standstill, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and unprecedented economic damage. The global response has been the rapid creation of COVID-19-specific research and innovation priorities and extraordinary allocation of funds. In May’s Coronavirus Global Response pledging event, $8 billion was raised for COVID-19-related R&D, comparable to the UK Government’s total annual budget for all research and innovation (UKRI; £8bn). 

Charities as the link between patients and progress 

At the same time, Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation merged at the beginning of 2020, which has been nothing short of a baptism of fire. Central to our approach – and a continuation of the traditions of both former organisations – has been to listen to the experiences of people with respiratory disease and seek to support the best research and innovation. This has been demonstrated through the rapid development of our service for people with post-Covid breathlessness and subsequent role as a co-applicant on an £8.4m study in the long-term impacts of COVID, led by ERS Scientific Chair, Professor Chris Brightling. Additionally, we are delighted to be supporting two outstanding research programmes in the UK; CONDOR and OpenSafely, which will, respectively, help evaluate new diagnostic tests for COVID-19 and understand its impact in primary care.  

Building partnerships that can transform outcomes 

Historically, both legacy charities have used our charitable funds to fund strategic research and innovation, which otherwise would not occur and could have long-term impacts. But the stark reality is that, even with our combined income, to truly change outcomes for people with respiratory disease demands a level of investment that we cannot achieve alone.  

That’s why Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation emphasise working as a partner to funders, academics and innovators, both to create new funding calls for respiratory research and innovation, as well as to drive forward applications for pioneering programmes. 

As CEO, I’m proud to have overseen an array of valuable partnerships. In the past two years, we have worked with Innovate UK to create a £1.25m fund for new asthma diagnostic tools, and in the autumn, we are preparing a £3m partnership with two major UK funders to run a competition to develop the latest digital self- management tools in asthma. Equally as fruitful has been our work to develop new collaborations between scientists across the UK to pursue funding. This has resulted in two large multi-year programmes – to better stratify severe asthma and explore therapies for people with T2-low severe asthma – and ultimately will bring us closer to a vision of personalised medicine in the management of asthma.  

In addition, as part of a £5m donation from the Victor Dahdaleh Foundation, we established the Mesothelioma Research Network in October 2017. The Network brings researchers together to accelerate progress towards effective treatments for this deadly cancer and has assisted in securing more than £27 million in additional funding for mesothelioma research from organisations including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Cancer Research UK. 

Work with us to seize this golden opportunity 

The momentum created by COVID-19 creates a unique opportunity to transform the way the world sees respiratory disease and an opportunity to leverage some of the R&D assets being created by this extraordinary investment. The long-term impacts of COVID-19, of which breathlessness is a major symptom, have also demonstrated how a respiratory virus can be the entry point to a range of illnesses. 

We want to work with you to develop game-changing research and innovation that can transform outcomes for people with respiratory disease. Here are four simple ways that you can engage with us: 

  • Co-funder – backing joint funding calls and working together to identify strategic opportunities in respiratory disease 

  • Co-applicant – we can provide a range of services for bold research programmes 

  • Convener – helping to develop collaborations between scientists and innovators to form better applications 

  • Asthma Lab – working with innovators to provide deeper insights about patients 

If you would like to hear more, please get in touch with my colleague Krisnah, our External Affairs Manager for Research and Innovation, at  

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4 September 2020