The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $280 million in grants to fight the global tuberculosis epidemic. The money will be used to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and drugs to treat a disease that kills nearly two million people each year. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

The Gates Foundation has pledged $900 million in grants to fight TB by 2015, and the $280 million in awards are part of that package.

With Tuesday's announcement, the Foundation has met almost half of its commitment.

Public health officials say they are currently fighting tuberculosis with antiquated technology. The disease, which is mainly a respiratory illness, is spread through coming in contact with bacteria through sneezing.

Tachi Yamada is president of the Gates Foundation's Global Health Program. He says TB is one of the worlds most serious and overlooked health problems.

"A standard TB diagnostic uses 100 year old technology, misses half of the cases and is difficult to use," said Tachi Yamada. "The TB vaccine is 80-years-old and rarely effective after childhood. TB drugs require cumbersome regimens and losing effectiveness as a result of rising drug resistance."

The majority of the 11 new Gates Foundation grants totaling $200 million will be spent on vaccine development. The money will be used by the Aeras (AIR-US) Global TB Vaccine Foundation to determine which of six experimental vaccine drugs holds the most promise.

Experts say even a partially effective vaccine could prevent 30 million deaths by the year 2030.

The Gates Foundation has earmarked $62 million for development of a rapid and simple TB diagnosis test. An additional $18 million of Foundation money will go toward developing new TB drugs.

Gates Foundations' Yamada cautions there's no guarantee that any of the research efforts will bear fruit.

"We're willing to take that risk, we're willing to invest, in the understanding that much of what we invest will not succeed," he said. "But we are hoping that some of our investments will bear fruit."

Researchers hope to develop rapid tuberculosis test within five years. The money earmarked for vaccine development will be used to fund trials involving eight-thousand volunteers in 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, with an eye toward having a TB vaccine by 2015.