Why Aren’t We Producing Medications for Looming Global Disease Threats?
Friday, March 27, 2015
In the United States, any cluster of tuberculosis cases makes headlines, no matter how small the numbers. For example, local health authorities recently issued a warning to medical providers after 15 residents of a New York City neighborhood contracted tuberculosis over a two-year period — and the tabloids promptly hyped the news.
When 78 people in Los Angeles contracted tuberculosis between 2007-2013, local health authorities asked for federal help in controlling the outbreak, which then became national news.
But the reason these miniature outbreaks — and there are more than many people realize — are so dangerous is rarely addressed. The standard treatment for TB is 50 years old and we desperately need new medicines, particularly with the global proliferation of highly drug-resistant strains of the disease. Patients today have the same chance of surviving multi-drug-resistant TB with treatment as they have of surviving the Ebola virus without any treatment.
As the home of a biomedical brain trust anchored by the National Institutes of Health and a vibrant pharmaceutical and biotech sector, the United States would seem to be the logical leader of a global push to confront TB and other infectious diseases before they become a much bigger problem. But a new report scheduled for release Thursday by the Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC) concludes that the U.S. needs to increase its capacity for global health research and development, especially after the recent Ebola outbreak made clear how even obscure diseases can quickly become all-consuming problems.
The GHTC analysis reveals that over the past six years, taxpayer funding for global health research has been stagnant or declining. The drift started with the great recession of 2009 and was intensified by the sequestration of 2013, which cut government funding for global health R&D by more than 10 percent.
A key reason why the Ebola outbreak still continues in West Africa — with a death toll of more than 10,000 people — is that no one placed a high priority on Ebola drugs and vaccines. The U.S. government subsequently allocated $5.4 billion in emergency funding to contain the epidemic, a figure several times larger than what it spent in 2013 for all global health R&D. Yet TB alone kills 1.5 million people every year.