October 24, 2011

World Health Summit highlights creative funding for new global health products

Product Development Policy Officer

Claire Wingfield is a Product Development Policy Officer with PATH. This week, she’s blogging from the World Health Summit in Berlin, Germany.

The third annual World Health Summit is currently underway in Berlin. The Summit brings together researchers, policymakers, funders, advocates, and health care providers to discuss global public health policy and research. This year’s theme is “Today’s Science – Tomorrow’s Agenda,” but the hot topic in almost every session that I have attended so far has been the need for innovative and sustainable funding mechanisms for global health in this time of financial uncertainty.

Incentive prizes were highlighted as a mechanism for encouraging investment in research and development (R&D) of neglected and orphan diseases. These results-based rewards (as opposed to recognition awards like the Nobel Prize) “pull” innovation by encouraging applicants to submit ideas. The models and types of prizes vary. Some may offer millions of dollars while others provide the winner with access to laboratory services for future research. The first incentive prize, sponsored by the British Parliament in 1714, resulted in breakthroughs in navigation with the winner getting a whopping £100,000. The prize model often attracts new ideas and people to a field and is results focused which is attractive in an environment where funders want to see “quick wins.”

Product development partnerships (PDPs) have also been highlighted at the summit as a successful model for accelerating R&D. Regina Rabinovitch of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation attributed the PDP model with feeding the largest research pipeline for neglected disease tools, increasing collaboration across the public and private sectors, and promoting a better understanding of the complexity of the product development process.

While the successes are promising, she warned that as the number of products moving through the pipeline grows, so do the costs. Each phase of clinical studies requires more volunteers, more data points, more demands on the research site, longer trials, and increased regulatory complexity. Given these challenges in a constrained financial environment, PDPs and other research networks must increase collaboration and share costs by doing things like site sharing and harmonized training. They also need to focus their research efforts by prioritizing the products in the pipeline and weighing their potential public health impact.

Bernard Pécoul, Executive Director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), stressed that it is critical for public sector partners to set objectives and priorities to ensure that product development is driven by health needs. Representatives from pharmaceutical companies—Novartis and Sanofi in the sessions that I attended—acknowledged that there are inherent difficulties with trying to reconcile limited profit potential with great public health need.

There are many differing views on how to address this challenge with no clear consensus. One suggestion that seemed to be well received was that pharmaceutical companies can offer untapped areas of expertise, specifically in regulatory science, manufacturing, distribution, and pharmacovigilance. These are critical components of the R&D process, and many academic and public sector research institutions would benefit from training and mentoring in these areas.

Recognizing that there is no magic bullet and that no one organizational or funding model can address the R&D needs for all neglected diseases, it is clear that limited resources must be leveraged, communication and coordination among research institutions across sectors needs to be increased, funding sources must be diversified, and current levels of support need to be sustained in order to maintain the recent momentum in global health research.

Posted in: