Investment in Innovation Key to Achieving Sustainable Development Health Goals
UNITAID Panel discussion at the UNITE Global Summit 2022.

The world can achieve the global health goals of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 only if it makes focussed investments into health innovation in the coming years. 

This was a key message from parliamentarians and representatives of the global health agency, UNITAID, at a panel on “Achieving the Global Health Targets Through Equitable Access to Health Innovation”, at the UNITE Global Summit 2022, which took place in Lisbon, Portugal this week. 

Dr Tenu Avafia, the deputy executive director of UNITAID, highlighted that the agency has an annual funding target of about $1.5 billion, which is funnelled into projects in low-income countries that help ensure equitable access to health tools – from prevention to diagnostics and treaments.  But the Geneva-based agency, which works in partnership with WHO and other global health partners, also has a strong innovation focus. It’s recent projects range from support for community trials testing shorter and less toxic formers of MDR-TB treatment in high-burden countries, to the testing and scale up of mass media campaigns for HIV self-testing amongst youth in Africa.  

Dr Tenu Avafia at the UNITE Global Summit 2022

“2023 is going to be a massive year for global health,” he said. Avafia added that Japan and India’s leadership at G-7 and G-20 respectfully will put universal health coverage and equitable access top priorities in the coming year. “We cannot keep the model where we concentrate, manufacture and distribute technologies in a handful of countries.”

Apart from Avafia, Maureen Murenga, a UNITAID board member, and Dr Ricardo Baptista Leite, UNITE head and a member of parliament from Portugal, were part of the panel discussion. 

Advancement in diagnostics, prevention and treatment has come a long way since HIV was discovered in the 1980s. Narrating the story of her own HIV diagnosis in those early years, Murenga related how she was initially tested five times, each test cycle returning the results after two weeks.  Now, health technology innovations has made possible immediate results, which opens up the door for more robust self-testing as well as other measures to prevent HIV infection from becoming full-blown AIDS.  

Maureen Murenga at the UNITE Global Summit 2022.

Murenga said that the invention of antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs was a game-changer for people living with HIV since it increased their lifespan and also decreased the chances of transmitting the virus to another person.

“So we are actually working towards the end of these epidemics…And if we don’t defeat them, they will come back and it’ll be too expensive for us to respond.” 

Attributing the progress in TB regimens and malaria vaccine to focussed efforts in innovation, Murenga stressed on the need to invest in solutions that will yield longer term benefits to the population. 

While investing in developing newer health solutions is important, it is equally important to ensure that the money goes into “innovation” and not “simple novelty”, Leite added. 

Dr Ricardo B Leite, a Portuguese parliamentarian and head of UNITE, at the UNITE Global Summit 2022.

“I believe that the role of UNITAID is very important to also distinguish what is innovation from simple novelty. And there is a lot of industry interest, sometimes, trying to push certain technologies as being true innovation, but at the end of the day, are not adding value to health systems,” he said. 

Dr Leite added that investing wisely is the need of the hour and parliamentarians must do whatever it takes to ensure the well being of the people they represent. “We all know what it means to go against our own party, but that’s part of the job. Our first responsibility is not to our party, it’s to the people that we serve, and making sure that we use science to base all our positions and decisions so that it is very clear where we’re coming from.”  

Dr Avafia reiterated that collaboration is key in achieving goals of health equity and innovation. UNITAID’s goals over the next five years include accelerating the introduction and adoption to new health products and to address systemic conditions that affect equitable access and to encourage inclusive partnerships to set the health agenda, he explained. 

“A fully-funded global health response requires a fully funded Global Fund, a fully funded WHO, fully funded UNITAID and Gavi as well. Members of Parliament, as you know much better than I do, are key interlocutors in both programme and donor countries to make sure that resource allocation for unmet health needs is prioritised.” 

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