Latin American budget cuts deal massive blow to science

ABRIDORA_laboratorio vacuna argentina
Scientists prepare the Argentine hemorrhagic fever vaccine for bulk production. Copyright: National Institute of Human Viral Diseases.

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  • Budget cuts in science are having a direct impact on Latin American populations
  • Research is being left unfinished because of lack of funds
  • Babies in Peru are dying because of the cuts, hospital sources say

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Drastic science cuts are having a devastating impact on Latin American research and costing lives, SciDev.Net correspondents report.

“When my dad died of Argentine hemorrhagic fever I was only six years old. It was a very hard blow for all the family. At that time, there was not an available vaccine,” recalls Juan Sarasola, mayor of Casilda, a town in Argentina’s Santa Fe province.

“Thanks to doctor [Julio] Maiztegui and his team, a vaccine was made and thousands of lives were saved in our region, where the fever is endemic,” he adds.

This year, 40 years after the first steps in that vaccine development, its production has been stopped in Argentina due to economic woes. Three machines used to produce it have broken and, amid rising inflation and unpredictable exchange rates, replacing them at a cost of US$267,000 looks unlikely.

“…the impact of suspending research is huge for societies because we would lose direction and ideas for a brighter future,”

Hebe Vessuri, social anthropologist

There are currently only 140,000 doses of the vaccine in the country — insufficient to meet the needs of the population for the next year, according to the Maiztegui National Human Viral Diseases Institute. The vaccine is the only one in the world against Argentine hemorrhagic fever and shortages would put around five million people at risk, warn three national medical organisations in a joint statement. Since 2007, the vaccine has been mandatory for Argentineans aged 15 or over who live, work or transit through endemic areas.

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A single dose of the Argentine hemorrhagic fever vaccine provides lifelong protection from the disease.
Copyright: National Institute of Human Viral Diseases.

Inside the Maiztegui institute, in Pergamino city, the clock is ticking: even if new equipment for vaccine production appears, the scientists there say they would need about eight months to reset the industry and three more to generate 80,000 doses. That, plus the existing 140,000, they say, could be enough to last up to 2020. The question is, when will the new equipment be up and running?

The National Administration of Laboratories and Health Institutes (ANLIS) in Argentina — the public body which oversees the Maiztegui institute — told SciDev.Net, that a public procurement process was under way for purchasing the equipment but nobody could be sure whether it would be available this year. ANLIS also insisted that the existing stock of 140,000 doses would cover 2020 demand.

In the final stage of production, bottles are filled with the Argentine hemorrhagic fever vaccine, which includes an attenuated strain of the virus.
Copyright: National Institute of Human Viral Diseases.

Nevertheless, in their joint statement, the Argentine Society of Vaccinology and Epidemiology, the Argentine Society of Virology, and Argentine Association of Microbiology urged national health authorities to act to “assure continuity in vaccine production in Argentina in a timely manner”.

Zika research under threat

In Brazil, there are also threats to scientific progress due to the recently announced budget cuts of thousands of science grants. Research into whether chloroquine, a drug used against malaria and autoimmune diseases, could inhibit Zika virus replication — and associated risks such as microcephaly — could be abandoned as a result.

So far this year (up to 30 September), Brazil has registered 9,813 Zika cases, according to health ministry figures, 447 of which were pregnant women. Two deaths were registered in Paraiba state and there are 1,649 more suspected cases.
Geneticist Rodrigo Brindeiro, from the Molecular Virology Laboratory of Rio de Janeiro Federal University, who is the head of the team studying chloroquine, told SciDev.Net that because the drug is already approved for use even in pregnant women and is toxin-free, the cost of continuing with it “is hundreds of times less than investing in new ones”.

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Chloroquine, a drug used against a number of diseases, could prevent replication of Zika, but more research is needed.
Copyright: Dennis Navarro.

“But if we continue with this we will not be able to keep up our research,” he admits. He also notes that the sword of Damocles hangs over thousands of scientists in his country, since the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) decided to suspend funding for 84,000 researchers because of lack of resources.

Spending on Brazil’s science and technology sector has plummeted since 2016, but 2019 is the worst of the past four years: the Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication Ministry has a budget of about US$750,000, a third of what it had in 2010.

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Budget cuts to Brazil’s universities directly affect research centres such as the molecular virology laboratory of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Copyright: Washington Castilhos.

These are just two examples of how budget cuts and declining investment in science, technology and innovation are increasingly becoming the norm in the region, with damaging consequences for research and innovation.

“Although some ignorant cynics could argue that nothing will happen if you stop financing science and technology in our region, the impact of suspending research is huge for societies because we would lose direction and ideas for a brighter future,” says Hebe Vessuri, a social anthropologist who won the 2017 Bernardo Houssay award for her work in Argentinean social sciences.

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A banner at the entrance of the Center of Health Sciences of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro captures the outrage of the university community before the cuts.
Copyright: Washington Castilhos.

Vessuri is now guest professor at Colombia’s Los Andes University in Bogotá and Emeritus researcher at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research. She believes public investment in science and technology is crucial, and that “going on with these budget cuts will send us to the bottom of the league”.

Venezuelan research halted

In Venezuela, the possibilities of research and innovation are practically non-existent due to the current economic and political crisis. The country had hyperinflation of 135,379 per cent between August 2018 and August 2019, official government figures show. And, after two monetary reconversions — eliminating zeros from the currency — and 15 years of exchange controls, universities have no access to dollars to buy reagents or equipment.

Additionally, since 2009 public and autonomous universities have received no funding for research, only resources to pay salaries. Facilities and laboratories at these institutions look abandoned and ruined. In some cases, they can only keep going thanks to donations from former fellows now living abroad.

The bioterium at the Central University of Venezuela’s school of medicine, which used to be an elite place for raising animals and scientific trials, now has no animals. A similar situation can be seen at Simón Bolívar University, where 32 years of genetic heritage is at stake.

Biologist Yenis Pérez, who works there, says her project, a vaccine made of recombinant proteins in animals to control parasitic diseases in cattle, is almost paralysed. Researchers only work when they have reagents and the equipment is usable.

Pérez’s research could help prevent humans from becoming infected after consuming contaminated meat and milk. In the past five years, cows in Venezuela have been attacked by parasites, leading to a drop in the production and quality of dairy products and meat.

“We only have the scientists’ perseverance,” she tells SciDev.Net. “We work with enthusiastic students despite the horrible situation. Even so, it is really hard to make progress.”

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A researcher looks sadly at the bioterium facilities of the Central University of Venezuela, completely abandoned.
Copyright: Carmen Victoria Inojosa.

In December 2006, Nieves Canudas, a chemistry professor at Simón Bolívar University, received US$1,302,325 (2,800 million bolívars) after her project won an award from the Science Mission and National Science and Technology Fund. The aim was to develop an ointment that can destroy pathogens from the skin of people suffering from burns.

She used that money to buy equipment and supplies. However, in the past year, Canudas has had to halt her research because of broken equipment which she didn’t have the budget to repair.

“We have no money to finish our project. We needed 90,000 bolivars, but now that amount is not enough for our needs. Nor would it cover bioterium trials,” says Canudas.

Rising hyperinflation has worsened the purchasing power of the local currency. In 2017 those 90,000 bolívars represented half of a minimum salary. After the second reconversion in 2018 which took out another five zeros, Canuda couldn’t even buy a metro ticket with that amount.

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The Simón Bolívar University bioterium also looks abandoned and at risk of losing the genetic heritage collected over 32 years.
Copyright: Carmen Victoria Inojosa.


Brain drain risk

One of the most important technological ventures in Brazil, the fourth-generation particle accelerator Sirius, has also been affected by budget cuts.
Planned to start its activities next year with 13 research stations, it will begin with only one of them. The project is funded by the Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications Ministry, which has already invested US$323 million of the US$440 million labour budget.
Antonio José Roque da Silva, general manager at the National Centre of Energy and Materials Research (CNPEM) and Sirius project, told SciDev.Net that they have received only about 20 per cent of the US$62 million budget approved by Congress for 2019.

Located in the Campinas area of Sao Paulo, the CNPEM/ Sirius facilities have many applications, from studying rocks in oil to raise oil production, to computer tomographies that can improve cancer diagnosis and pave the way to new treatments.

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Scientific facilities and laboratories look abandoned and deteriorated.
Copyright: Zoraida Portillo.

Sirius has been planned since 2012 and developed entirely in Brazil. It is set to be the second active fourth-generation particle accelerator after Sweden’s MAX IV, which opened in 2016. France is building another, expected to be in operation by 2021, while Japan and the United States are also modernising their synchrotron light sources.

Physicist and former CNPEM president Rogerio de Cerqueira Leite, thinks that Sirius is a “transcendent leap not only for Brazilian and Latin American science but also worldwide”. He adds: “It is an important project for Brazilian scientists’ self-esteem, because we are always a step behind Europe and the United States, and this project puts Brazil at the same place as developed countries.”

But he doesn´t know how bad the continuous science budget cuts could be. “Other places in the world are always trying to hire our researchers. If we can’t keep them here, other accelerators in the world will take advantage of the situation, which could be good for some of them but ugly for Brazil,” he explains.

“In an uncertain landscape, it is hard to maintain highly qualified workers. In the short term, there is a clear risk of interrupting the production chain of research centres and companies,” he warns.

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Aerial view of Brazil’s National Centre of Energy and Materials Research (CNPEM), which houses the Sirius project.
Copyright: CNPEM.

Reallocating the budget may not be enough, fears Cerqueira Leite, adding: “If we dismantle what we already have, it will take 20 to 30 years to recover.”

“In an uncertain landscape, it is hard to maintain highly qualified workers. In the short term, there is a clear risk of interrupting the production chain of research centres and companies,”

Rogerio de Cerqueira Leite, Physicist and former CNPEM president


‘General ignorance’

Gabriela Dutrénit, postgraduate coordinator in economy, management and innovation politics at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Xochimilco Unitiy, Mexico, believes that behind all the budget cuts and disregard for science is “a general ignorance from people and politicians about the role of science research in societies, and we are responsible for that —for not explaining it properly”.
“We have to let society understand the benefits we can get from research, and make politicians understand that it is also true from an economic point of view,” she says, adding: “We need them to see that the consequences are not visible in two days. When somebody cuts a dollar from a specific project you won’t see its effects immediately, but you will in the medium term. Scientists won’t be able to keep on researching and the potential benefits for the whole population simply won’t be there.”

On the other hand, Vessuri notes that the region has a number of unused science and technology facilities, and “we should take advantage of those facilities and use them in a creative way.”

“Unfortunately, what we see as part of a self-inflicted process of deterioration by our authorities and politicians is the serious risk of dismantling capacities built with so much effort,” she adds.

She believes scientists “didn’t find a way to make politicians and businesspeople understand the huge potential that science has for our countries”.

Babies dying

Perhaps this ignorance is one of the factors that leads certain officials and bureaucrats to divert funds destined to technology and innovation elsewhere when short of resources.

This appears to be the case in Peru, where there are various public financing programmes for promoting technological innovation. But at the same time the population can’t get access to technologies, even old fashioned ones like incubators, monitors and infusion pumps for premature babies, admitted Zulema Tomas, of the ministry of health, speaking in September at the National Congres.

This is the reason why 30 babies died in the first three months of 2019 at the Regional Hospital at Lambayeque in the north of the country, which lacked the budget to repair and buy more incubators, according to hospital sources.

The office of the Comptroller General of the Republic confirmed that one million soles (about US$300,000) — half of the neonatology budget — had been used to buy Christmas boxes for their workers.

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The results of stopping investment in scientific research are not seen overnight, but in the long run take a toll on society.
Copyright: Héctor Vinces, Andean Agency.

In the midst of this hopeless landscape, some voices are calling for public investment in science and technology to be abandoned all together. But for Dutrénit “it is not the time”. “I don’t think that private investment can substitute [public investment] in our countries,” she says.

She says that Latin American countries still have a long way to go in developing science and technology infrastructures to reach the “critical mass” needed for these to sustain themselves. “It requires public investment, not only for leadership but to highlight the areas where investment is needed for development and social welfare — and because companies will always be driven by profit,” she concludes.

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Funds destined to repair and purchase incubators were diverted for other purposes in Peru.
Copyright: La República newspaper.

This feature was originally produced SciDev.Net’s Latin America and the Caribbean desk with reporting by Valeria Román (Argentina), Washington Castilhos and Meghie Rodrigues (Brazil), Zoraida Portillo (Perú) and Carmen Victoria Inojosa (Venezuela).