US underfunding crucial global health research and development, warns group

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Steve Snodgrass

As global health funding remains largely stagnant, more groups are trying to get a bigger piece of the US budgetary pie. For their part, research and development supporters wants a bigger slice, or at least for theirs to stay the same size.

A report by the Global Health Technologies Coalition warns that the political wrangling over federal budgets in Washington DC are putting crucial global health research and development at risk.

The coalition, made up of some 30+ NGOs, says funding for research and development has eroded over the past few years. Making proper investments means not only that new lifesaving developments in areas like TB, AIDS and maternal health can be made, it also represents a significant boost to the US.

“The investment we have made in research to date has contributed to major public health successes, but there is no guarantee that the gains we have made today will work tomorrow,” said Kaitlin Christenson, MPH, director of the GHTC, to Humanosphere.

Christenson argues that investing in research and development is one that will benefit people around the world, as well as Americans. It taps into the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans. The report, Innovation for a changing world: The role of US leadership in global health R&D, says that existing investments have helped to create 7 million jobs and contributes $69 billion to the US GDP each year.

“The investment in innovation resonates with American character, that helps support domestic improvements, economic growth and our diplomatic goals,” she said.

“Research to develop better treatments and better preventative technologies can benefit people abroad as well as people at home. It is literally in our health interest.”

The report came out in advance of the unveiling of a new development lab by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Its release is further evidence that the agency, led by Raj Shah, is taking an increasing technology-oriented approach to development. Shah even took the opportunity to tout USAID’s innovation and data-drive work at a  hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee (while also being grilled about the agency’s controversial Twitter-like program in Cuba).

“We will continue to make cost‐effective interventions that save lives—from preventing the spread of disease, to providing nutrition to millions of hungry children around the world,” said Shah during his prepared remarks.

The overall state of foreign aid remains in flux, in the US and elsewhere.

Global spending on foreign aid reached a record high in 2013. An increase by 6.1% brought total official development assistance to $134.8 billion, said the global economic policy forum the OECD. That was in large part led by continued increases by the UK and the emergence of new players, like the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, as Tom Paulson reported yesterday, global health spending is growing at a snail’s pace. A breakdown of the trends by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that the money is going into a few pots. Maternal/child health and HIV/AIDS alone were responsible for 45% of development assistance for health in 2011.

Advances have already been made against some of the most difficult diseases, but more support is necessary to ensure that they can reach the people who need them most. Initiatives like the USAID development lab rarely provide support for late-stage clinical trials.

Getting over that last hurdle for new treatments is crucial. TB, for example, is an increasing problem due to resistance. Treatments for TB are in the research pipeline, but are proceeding slowly because of limited resources.

“We are on the cusp of new regimes and developing a new vaccine where we would see a tremendous difference in treatment and prevention of TB,” said Christenson.

There is still push-back on calls for more technological-driven solutions. As Julia E. Robinson, director of advocacy programs for Health Alliance International at the University of Washington, argued yesterday, there are plenty of areas in global health where major problems need to be addressed and do not require a technical fix.

“If we are serious about the “End of AIDS,” though, we need to be serious about moving beyond technologies alone and invest in qualified, trained health care workers in the places that need them most,” write Robinson.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.