Geneva Is ‘Epicentre’ Of Global Health Innovation
Developing & rolling out COVID-19 diagnostics has been a key challenge.

Many Geneva-based health agencies have worked together for years to improve global access to diagnostics and treatment, but the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated much closer collaboration and speedier decision-making.

This is according to experts from the WHO co-sponsored  “ACT Accelerator” medicine access partnership – including UNITAID, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria who appeared today at a session of the Geneva Health Forum.

They appeared together at a session of the Geneva Health Forum with other colleagues from the Swiss Data Science Center of the Swiss Federal Technical Insitute-Lausanne (EPFL) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to talk about what it means to have “Geneva at the Forefront of Epidemic Response.”

Wealthy countries lack the tools to properly diagnose patients.

“Geneva is the epicentre of global health and also innovation,” said Philippe Duneton, Executive Director of Unitaid- a multi-country partnership with the UN system – which is a key channeler of new product innovations into national health systems. He described how his organization’s pre-existing partnerships around HIV and TB had provided a solid platform for collaboration on COVID-19.

“We have been coming together very easily because of the work that we were doing for a long time, ” said Duneton. “But the level of speed, procedure and mastery now is unprecedented.”

Unitaid works primarily through partnerships to channel funds to countries and actors that can help ensure equitable access to innovative health products for the world’s leading infectious disease killers.

Diagnostic Testing: a “Burning Issue”

Ensuring that there are accurate diagnostic tests for COVID-19 has been one of the key challenges for such Geneva-based organisations – and one of the first that was tackled by the formal and informal networks of global health actors.

Diagnostic testing became a “burning issue” during COVID-19 as the deadly disease spread, often silently, and even wealthier countries realized that they lacked the tools to properly diagnose patients, according to FIND’s Emma Hannay. FIND is a non-profit that seeks innovation and delivery of diagnostics to address major diseases.

“Many low, and middle-income countries have access to only the basic tests that you need to be able to care for patients. And even where there is more advanced infrastructure in high-income countries, we have seen countries struggle to be able to respond to the peaks and demands of the pandemic,” said Hannay.

Hannay said she and Duneton had almost daily conversations to address this and other issues since the pandemic began.

“Diagnostics is much less regulated than for other global health commodities. There have been some pretty expensive mistakes made by countries, early on in the procurement of substandard tests,” said Hannay.

“We’ve also seen the emergence of “diagnostics nationalism”, when there have been supply-chain wars over access to diagnostic testing where low-income countries have typically missed out. By the time a diagnostic comes to market, the entire stock might have been reserved by some government.”

To address such issues, the WHO co-sponsored Access to Global COVID-19 Tools, ACT Accelerator, was launched last spring, including Unitaid, FIND and the Global Fund among the key players.

Partners of the WHO co-sponsored Act Accelerator.

Francoise Vanni, Head of External Relations at the Global Fund, said that her organisation’s success is based on “collaborating and joining forces with others”.

“Over the past 20 years, together with our partners we’ve saved, 38 million lives so we know that this approach works,” said Vanni.

Before the pandemic, many of the Geneva-based partners shared a “global health campus”, said Vanni. But the pandemic had forced many of the partners to work at home and to collaborate online.

“What I have had to learn from working online is to listen proactively,” said Vanni.

The Geneva Health Forum runs from 16-18 November. Follow Health Policy Watch’s coverage here and on Twitter.

Image Credits: WHO, University of Washington Northwest Hospital & Medical Center.

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