Huge cash injection for Hong Kong universities’ Covid-19 research

Newly funded work to include investigations into how the city brought infections down to nearly zero

May 1, 2020
A technician cultivates lung cells as he preps for research into the infectivity of the SARS-CoV-2 in human lungs at a laboratory at the University of Hong Kong
Source: Getty

Hong Kong’s two medical schools, which have been important critical voices in global public health policy, have received significant government support for 26 studies related to Covid-19 after the Health and Medical Research Fund approved HK$111 million (£11.5 million) for the University of Hong Kong Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine (HKU Med) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine (CU Medicine).

The funds are intended for use over the next two years, according to a 27 April government release.

The research will include the development of vaccine and antiviral candidates, as well as investigations into how the city has largely controlled the virus. As of 29 April, Hong Kong recorded no new infections for four consecutive days and is likely to reopen some schools soon.

“Riding on previous research experience and Hong Kong’s world-class expertise in medical research, the commissioned research studies on Covid-19 should be able to generate timely scientific knowledge and evidence in battling the epidemic,” said Sophia Chan, secretary for food and health and a former assistant dean at HKU Med. The government said it welcomed Covid-19 research proposals from other universities as well.

Within days of the funding approval, CU Medicine announced its first project under the Health and Medical Research Fund. On 29 April, it revealed plans to recruit 3,000 members of the public to take part in an investigation into “hidden” Covid-19 infections.

Francis Chan, dean of CU Medicine, told Times Higher Education that “with the additional funding, we will embark on new projects that will help deepen our understanding of this novel virus and improve clinical guidelines in the various specialties most affected by this pandemic”.

“Our clinicians and researchers will continue to help build capacity within both Hong Kong and the global community to combat this unprecedented disease,” he said.

HKU Med said in a statement that the grant would help to position Hong Kong at the forefront of research, public health and the prevention of emerging infectious disease across the world. In its latest project, HKU led an international team to develop a new method to track Covid-19 worldwide using big data, in a study published on 29 April in Nature.

The new funding comes as Hong Kong universities, like their counterparts across the world, face budget cuts amid economic downturns.

When asked about Covid-19 aid for higher education institutions, the Hong Kong University Grants Committee said only that it was “monitoring the situation and will consider whether to allocate additional funding to the UGC-funded universities on research and other purposes in consultation with stakeholders on a need basis”.

Some major funding for universities, which was delayed in the legislature last November amid anti-government protests, is still pending, but could be discussed as early as 8 May, according to Ip Kin-yuen, a lawmaker representing the education sector.

Professor Chan of CU Medicine said that, along with research and clinical work, medical education was also a core responsibility, even if much of it moved online. “We have introduced many innovative modes of teaching and assessments to ensure that our students’ learning has not been disrupted during this difficult period,” he said, adding that the school was conducting online consultations with real patients and online case discussions.

The city’s two medical schools were given exceptional permission to hold in-person final exams this month. This was partly to ensure that a new cohort of doctors could start internships on time.

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