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March 27, 2014

Report: US Essential for Global Health

by Joe DeCapua

A new report says while big budget battles in Washington may be over for now, adequate funding to fight HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases may still be at risk. The Global Health Technologies Coalition has released its annual report, which focuses on U.S. leadership in research and development.
 
Coalition Director Kaitlin Christenson praises the improved atmosphere between Democrats and Republicans. She called the ceasefire in budget debates on Capitol Hill “good news.”
 
“We’re pleased to see that for the first time in several years Congress is able to move forward with a budget that went through the relatively normal process. And we’re pleased to see that in many areas numbers for global health specifically were held strong,” she said.
 
The federal budget had gone though – what’s called – sequestration.  It required mandatory across-the-board cuts for all agencies if Congress failed to make its own spending cuts. In recent years, the legislative body could not reach agreement, so all agencies took a big hit in spending.
 
Christenson said while the climate has improved, there are no guarantees of agreement for the next fiscal year beginning in October.
 
“Going into negotiations for FY-15 we do have some concerns and are hoping that Congress will – as it takes the president’s budget request – bring numbers back up for agencies like the NIH [National Institutes of Health], like global health programs at the State Department and at USAID.”
 
She said the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Agency for International Development play a critical role in researching and developing health-related products, simply known as R&D.
 
With USAID and the State Department, in particular, we saw that funding levels were for the most part decreased across all conditions and disease areas based on the levels that were approved by Congress for the FY-14 budget agreement.
 
It’s a similar situation for the National Institutes of Health.
 
Christenson said, “With the NIH, the president’s request for FY-15 was still lower than the request that came in in 2014. It’s a slight increase over what we saw passed by Congress, but the budget request coming from the administration has actually decreased. There’s critical research happening at the NIH that helps us understand how these diseases take place – and helps propel the development of new products that are desperately needed.”
 
Before sequestration began in March of last year, many research projects were underway. Many millions of dollars had already been spent on them. When the cuts took hold, the projects simply shut down.
 
“The challenge with research is that when we stop a clinical trial, we can’t just pick it back up. There’s a significant amount of investment made in staff – in building community support – and building capacity of local researchers. So, once a trial shuts down it’s very difficult and expensive to start it back up,” she said.
 
The Global Health Technologies Coalition report is called Innovation for a changing world: The role of U.S. leadership in global health R&D. Christenson says the coalition takes a long-term view on global health investment.
 
“We’ve done some analysis that shows, for example, that the investment that was made in developing a recently introduced meningitis vaccine in Africa will pay off over the long-term. We estimate that hundreds of millions of dollars will be saved that would have been otherwise spent in treating individuals who succumb to meningitis,” she said.
 
She described such investment as critical.
 
“We’ve seen the tremendous impact that comes from research to create life-saving health tools. But we know that the tools we have today are not sufficient and that there is no guarantee they will meet the health needs of tomorrow.”
 
Last year, a bill was introduced to Congress called the 21st Century Global Health Technology Act.  Christenson said it would codify support for USAID in research and development and cooperation between U.S. agencies involved in the work.
 
The coalition also called for bigger budgets for the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.