'Call to action' for G20 health ministers ahead of Berlin meeting

A hospital in Romania. Photo by: Jutta Benzenberg / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

BERLIN, Germany — A coalition of global health organizations came together Friday to urge G-20 health ministers to do more to tackle pandemics, drug resistance and neglected diseases, describing health as a “global security issue” as it appears prominently on the G-20 agenda for the first time.

The coalition issued a “call to action” at a conference on global health innovation in Berlin, Germany, demanding that G-20 health ministers commit new long-term investment to pandemic preparedness, as well as to health technologies to combat antimicrobial resistance and poverty-related and neglected diseases, when they meet in the German capital in May.

“We want to encourage the G-20 to permanently put the issue of health on the agenda,” said Alan Donnelly, executive chairman of policy consultancy Sovereign Strategy, a member of the Think20 Task Force on the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, in his opening speech. “This is a call to action to heads of government and finance ministers. We see this not only as a health issue, but as a global security issue.”

The call to action — issued by organizations including PATH, the TB Alliance, the Sabin Vaccine InstituteCEPI and UNITAID — asks G-20 ministers to provide political leadership to address priority health areas and to increase financial support for global health innovation, including research and development for drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. They want the G-20 to encourage business, and philanthropic organizations to increase investment, and say that G-20 public health and scientific expertise must be put to full use, including promoting open data sharing in research and development to help technology transfers.

Failure to invest now will lead to greater costs in the long-term, says the coalition, which also includes the Medicines for Malaria Venture, Sovereign Strategy, the Global Health Technologies Coalition and the GHIT Fund.

The World Bank has estimated that, without additional resources, diseases will push 28.3 million more people into poverty, increase global healthcare costs by $1.2 trillion and cost low income countries more than 5 percent of gross domestic product by 2050.

G-20 leadership is vital to successfully reduce the global disease burden, lift millions out of poverty and avert billions of dollars of economic and social costs, the coalition says.

As Germany has assumed the G-20 presidency, Angela Merkel has stated that health should be prioritised on the agenda.

In a series of lively roundtables and debates in Berlin on Friday, attendees from a diverse range of international organizations discussed Product Development Partnerships, or PDPs, and research around neglected diseases, as well as pandemic preparedness and strengthening global health partnerships to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of infectious diseases research at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore, and one of the hosts of the conference, argued that the G-20 can have a big impact on the global health debate.

“We cannot act alone and international co-operation is necessary,” she said. “The painful lessons we have learned from Ebola have not gone away. We are living in a time of anti-global populist attitudes, so the G-20 is a very powerful advocate to achieve the 2030 agenda.”

In their “call to action,” the coalition voiced frustration that the world remains “woefully underprepared” for pandemics — something recently highlighted by World Bank president Jim Kim, who criticized governments for failing to improve the state of pandemic preparedness. The Ebola epidemic in western Africa resulted in more than 11,000 deaths, and cost Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia an estimated $2.2 billion in economic output. The recent outbreak of the Zika virus in the Americas further underscored the fact that urgent research is needed in this area.

Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of CEPI, an alliance that finances and coordinates the development of new vaccines, said that pandemic preparedness is an important inclusion on the G-20 agenda. The threats are global and so preparation must be global too, he said. “We are thrilled that pandemic preparedness has been highlighted by Germany for the G-20. But it really should be part of the ongoing conversation,” he said.

“It is vital we work together, because health issues do not respect international borders.”

— Stephan Albani, a member of Germany’s CDU party

Throughout the day, attendees spoke about the importance of global partnerships and coordination to avoid duplication of efforts. “It is vital we work together, because health issues do not respect international borders,” said Stephan Albani, a member of Merkel's CDU party in the German Bundestag, or parliament. Bernhard Schnittger, deputy head of the Office of the European Commission in Germany, agreed: “None of us can solve global health alone; we must all step up,” he said.

Local partnerships are also needed to meet the SDGs, speakers said. “We really need those local partnerships to achieve scale,” said Dr Michelle Gayer, acting senior director of the International Rescue Committee.

However, speakers acknowledged that they can be difficult to put into practice. “Partnerships are tricky, they aren’t always easy,” said Sanne Fournier-Wendes, advisor to the executive director at UNITAID. Robert Terry, who works on research and training in tropical diseases at the World Health Organization, added that “everyone talks about coordination, but no one likes to be coordinated.”

Speakers also highlighted the importance of communicating messages around global health; and the need to invest effectively, including the importance of transparency and of being able to demonstrate value for money. “Globally the demand for funding is huge and public sentiment is much more critical,” said Professor Helen Rees, executive director of Wits RHI. “So you have to be able to tell the story about why this is worth taxpayers' money to the person on the ground.” Others pointed to the role data can play in evaluating spending and impact.

In a roundtable that focused on PDPs and the research landscape for neglected diseases, speakers said there is a need for more — and more flexible — funding for PDPs. “The talent’s there; we need money,” said Claire Wingfield, a senior policy officer with PATH. Attendees also spoke about the need for supportive policies and political will, as well as the importance of working with local communities on innovations.

Editor’s Note, May 4: This article was updated to include additional signatories to the letter

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About the author

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    Abby Young-Powell

    Abby Young-Powell is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Berlin. She covers a range of topics for publications including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and Deutsche Welle. Before working freelance, she was deputy editor of Guardian Students, part of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. She is also a fellow of the International Journalists' Programme, after working at Die Tageszeitung in Germany.