BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

September 28, 2018

Overheard at UNGA: 4 key takeaways on global health innovation

Marissa Chmiola
Communications Officer
GHTC
UN Photo/Loey Felipe

A “who’s who” of politicians, philanthropists, CEOs, and civil society leaders descended upon New York City this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)—a gathering renowned for its policymaking, pledging, and perennial traffic problems. GHTC was on the scene all week—attending side events, tuning into the official debates, and navigating police barriers—to be your eyes and ears on the ground. Here is what we heard and our top four takeaways on global health research and development (R&D):

1. We can’t end TB without new tools, so it’s vital for world leaders to marshal the political will and resources to close the TB R&D funding gap.

Tuberculosis (TB) was a top topic at this year’s assembly with the convening of the first high-level meeting (HLM) on TB. Repeatedly, we heard—from advocates and policymakers, at side events and in in the official proceedings—how poor treatment options are a cornerstone of our failure to eradicate TB and of growing drug resistance, and that new vaccines and improved treatments and diagnostics will be key to turning the tide. While much attention focused on this lack of necessary tools, equal attention focused on the lack of political will and resources to end the epidemic. Many speakers lamented how shamefully slow progress has been since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared TB a global emergency 25 years ago and highlighted the urgent need to close the funding gap for TB, including the US $1.3 billion gap for TB R&D.
 
As the curtain closed on the HLM, world leaders, as expected, endorsed a carefully negotiated political declaration. GHTC was pleased to see it include a commitment to increasing investment in TB R&D by $2 billion and strong recognition of the importance of cross-border, cross-sector collaboration in driving product development. However, we also share concerns raised by other advocates on accountability. For this meeting to catalyze true change, rhetoric must now translate to action, and commitments must be matched with mechanisms that track investments and hold nations accountable.

2. There are many roads on the path to universal health coverage, but innovation can be an accelerator.

Universal health coverage (UHC) was another topic that took the spotlight at UNGA 73, championed by the issue’s top “cheerleader in chief” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyus, who has made achieving UHC a centerpiece of his directorship. Given the focus of the world’s doctor on UHC, many advocates at UNGA framed their specific issues through the lens of UHC, highlighting the myriad of steps needed to achieve this ambitious goal‒from building a stronger health workforce, to expanding access to medicines, to tackling leading killers like malaria, HIV/AIDS, and TB. Yet, a common theme heard across these conversations is that along each of these roads, innovation can be an accelerator.
 
Throughout the week, speakers highlighted how innovations and new technologies can help deliver care more efficiently and effectively, improve access and drive down costs, and accelerate countries along the path to achieving UHC. TB advocates highlighted how shorter treatment regimens can improve care, decrease costs, and free up resources, while digital health advocates argued that better use of data can empower health workers to track and treat patients and allocate precious health resources most effectively. Others highlighted how innovative new tools like point-of-care diagnostics can bring improved care to the community level and to people in the most remote corners of the globe.

3. We need additional resources for R&D, and that requires countries to step up in an equitable way.

Domestic resource mobilization and equitable financing were words repeated throughout the week, particularly in conversations around the TB HLM and closing the TB R&D funding gap. Advocates, think tanks, and even government officials, argued that high-burden TB countries need to increase domestic investment in TB R&D and treatment. Some advocates have called for a “fair share” or equitable financing approach to TB R&D financing, with each country committing to spend .1 percent of their GDP on R&D. Others spoke to the potential of the BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—to play a greater role in financing R&D.
 
While much of the TB financing dialogue focused on increasing public sector contributions, conversations also highlighted the impact and further potential of financing models like the airline-tax-funded work of UNITAID or public-private partnership approaches—like product development partnerships and the work of the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund—which have married multisector contributions to bring novel, affordable, accessible tools to market. Other speakers highlighted the opportunity for industry to increase its TB R&D investment, though many lamented that although industry has brought new TB drugs and diagnostics to market in recent years, uptake has been slow due to high product costs.

4. There is reason for optimism and reason for concern.

The mood seemed mercurial in midtown Manhattan, as UNGA orators vacillated between optimism and concern about the future of global health and development. In the drumbeat to UNGA, the always-impatient optimists Bill and Melinda Gates unveiled their foundation’s Goalkeepers report. The report’s stylish line graphs, which show a downward trajectory on health issues like child mortality, are uplifting and inspiring—a great reminder of the staggering progress we’ve achieved in global health and what’s possible for the future.
 
The basis of our optimism about the world has always been our belief in the power of innovation to redefine what’s possible – Bill and Melinda Gates
 
Yet, three years in, it has also become clear the world is not on track to meet the Global Goals. And even the optimistic Gates are reminding us that though we hold the blueprint for a healthier world, continued progress is not inevitable. The choices our policymakers implement today will determine whether progress continues or stalls. Throughout the week, many speakers gave voice to fears, highlighting concerns that foreign aid spending is under increased attack in leading donors countries like the United States—a notion echoed in President Trump’s speech to the Assembly—and that political changes like Brexit and an “America First” doctrine signal a movement toward isolationism over collective action. Given significant global health R&D funding comes through foreign aid budgets and the necessity of collaborative global action to deliver the cures of tomorrow, these developments are worrisome. Will these trends threaten progress, or will momentum continue? That’s a question we’ll surely continue to reflect on for many UNGAs to come.
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