Global health breakthroughs — other than for COVID-19 — in 2020

A child receives polio vaccine at a health center in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / Mulugeta Ayene / CC BY-NC-ND

MANILA — The speed in which new coronavirus tests, treatments, and vaccines have been made available this year was unprecedented in history, according to scientists and public health experts.

While welcome, a focus on these tools has raised concerns among some experts in the global health sector. The pandemic has led to pauses and delays — some indefinite — in clinical trials for tools to address other diseases, as well as a shift in funding and expertise to COVID-19 in both the public and private sectors, according to a new report by the Global Health Technologies Coalition. A lack of reagents and personal protective equipment also had an impact on other research and development efforts, the report found.

But amid these disruptions were also breakthroughs in new treatments and diagnostics for other global health challenges. Here are just a few:

Study finds malaria drug can also prevent relapse in children

The Plasmodium vivax parasite has a feature in which it stays dormant in the liver and, if not eliminated, can cause malaria disease relapse and contribute to its ongoing transmission. A new drug approved for use in adults in a few countries has now shown to be effective in children as well.

Can this new injectable deliver on its promise to reduce HIV transmission?

Cabotegravir, an investigative injectable drug for HIV, was found to be 66% more effective than oral preexposure prophylaxis in preventing HIV among men and transgender women. A separate study also found it is 89% more effective than oral PrEP in preventing HIV in women.

'Optimized for the underserved': A new diagnostic test built for low-income settings

A new portable diagnostic platform could change the way sickle cell disease is tested and offer a model for developing point-of-care tests for a range of diseases in low-resource settings. Gazelle, the sickle cell disease test launched by medical diagnostic device company Hemex Health, has received regulatory approval in India and Ghana.

After almost 40 years, there's now a shorter treatment for TB

A large-scale international study found that a four-month treatment course replacing rifampin and ethambutol with high-dose rifapentine and moxifloxacin, respectively, is as safe and effective as the six-month treatment regimen in curing patients with drug-susceptible tuberculosis.

First ever vaccine listed under WHO emergency use

Michel Zaffran reflects on polio lessons and the job ahead

Before stepping down from his role at the end of 2020, the WHO polio director hopes to oversee the launch of a new oral polio vaccine and help strategize the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Speaking with Devex, he also shares advice for his successor.

In November, the World Health Organization’s prequalification program issued interim emergency use listing for the novel oral polio vaccine type 2, which is meant to replace the currently used monovalent type 2 oral polio vaccine and control outbreaks caused by circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2. With the emergency use listing, the vaccine can now be introduced to select countries for initial use. Discussions are ongoing to identify the first countries to utilize the new vaccine.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.