We won't meet health-related SDGs if we don't invest in innovation

A laboratory technician in Kenya uses a microscope to examine a sample. Innovations are key to achieving global development goals. Photo by: Eric Becker / PATH

The sustainable development goals won’t be finalized until September, but people are already debating whether we can reach them. At least for the proposed health targets one thing is clear, they won’t be achieved without innovations that make better health care more affordable, accessible and effective. #GlobalGoalsWork, but only if we have the tools we need to reach them.

The Millennium Development Goals played a pivotal role in galvanizing the global community and intensifying investment in health research and development to create a robust pipeline of more than 360 technologies, including new and better medicines, vaccines, devices, diagnostics and other innovative solutions. To accelerate the gains achieved during the MDG era and to reach the even more ambitious SDGs, it is imperative that we continue to advance promising tools and ensure they reach the communities that can use them to transform their own health.

Identifying game-changing innovations

Of course, not all innovations are equally important for achieving the global goals. We must be more deliberate on identifying the real game changers and focusing attention and resources on those innovations with the most potential to drive affordable health impact over the next 15 years.

This is why PATH is leading the Innovation Countdown 2030 initiative. Learning from the MDGs, we have created a transparent, inclusive and global platform to engage experts across disciplines, sectors and geographies in identifying innovations that could have big impact by 2030.

We reached across the world to crowdsource hundreds of technologies and interventions. Ideas came from entrepreneurs, investors and experts from nearly 50 countries. More than 60 independent experts then assessed those innovations, selecting 30 that have great promise to accelerate progress toward the SDG health targets. Experts also highlighted challenges and insights into why innovation is so critical, how it can be done better, and how to tap into new frontiers in global health.

Ultimately, IC2030 is about breaking down silos and increasing awareness of innovations and how they are progressing — or not. That conversation then moves into the investment and partnerships that will turn these transformative ideas into saved lives.

Reflecting on how far we’ve come

IC2030 builds on a solid foundation of evidence that innovation is critical to meeting global health goals.

The impact of investments in R&D and delivery of health tools catalyzed by the MDGs is evident — not only in the robust pipeline of technologies but more importantly, in the improvements in health care and the resulting impact on lives. Consider that when the MDGs were established:

● Nearly 10 million children under age 5 died each year.
● Only about 1 in 1,000 people living with HIV in Africa had access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs.
● Diagnosis of drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis could take weeks or even months, leaving patients untreated.
● Malaria took the lives of more than 750,000 children under 5 each year.
● Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa’s “meningitis belt” were at risk of deadly meningitis A because vaccines were ineffective and expensive.

And today:

● Innovations in child survival — including immunizations, malaria treatment and prevention, and water, sanitation and hygiene improvements — have helped cut child deaths nearly in half to approximately 6 million annually.
● New, improved, and more affordable antiretroviral treatments have been rolled out to save millions of lives; 13.6 million people around the world are now receiving therapy.
● New diagnostic tools for drug-resistant tuberculosis can deliver results in just a few hours, so now patients can be treated more effectively and quickly.
● More than 200 million pediatric malaria treatments have been delivered to protect children in 50 malaria-endemic countries, and malaria deaths in children have dropped by more than 50 percent.
● A new vaccine designed specifically to stop meningitis A outbreaks in Africa is available at a cost of less than 50 cents per dose. No confirmed cases of meningitis A have occurred in the more than 217 million Africans vaccinated since 2010.

Accelerating innovation in the next 15 years

Even with all these great accomplishments, many countries will fall short of the MDG targets. But the world is changing, and new approaches are needed to identify priority innovations and ensure the financial and technical support is there to bring these ideas to low- and middle-income countries. The inaugural IC2030 report, which PATH will launch next month, offers several insights on how to accelerate the impact of health technology in the next 15 years.

Here are some of our key findings:

● Innovation is happening in every corner of the globe. We must tap and support innovation wherever it occurs, strengthening the capacity of LMICs to develop, produce and share homegrown innovations.
● Focusing on health solutions that deliver the most value for money — including crosscutting health system and platform innovations — will require more robust assessment tools to help guide decision-making on where to invest precious health resources.
● We need new financing mechanisms that can bring new players to the table, leverage and align funding across different stages in the development pipeline and across different partners, and ensure investment ultimately results in scalable, affordable technologies and interventions that meet the needs of LMIC markets.
● By better coordinating investment in innovations across the continuum of care, particularly across disease area, the world can better ensure a comprehensive suite of tools and services to achieve the greatest possible health impact.

As world leaders gather in the coming months to finalize the SDGs and strategize about how to finance and scale up solutions to help meet them, let’s ensure they know how important investments in R&D and delivery are to this process. Let’s also make sure that we, as a community, are prepared to think more strategically about how we accelerate innovation in the next 15 years.

The next generation of tools to prevent, diagnose, treat and ultimately end preventable deaths are part of the legacy of the MDGs. We hope you will join this important conversation.

In partnership with the U.N. Foundation and Fenton, Devex is examining the progress made toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals and U.S. contributions to spur global progress in our special “#GlobalGoalsWork” series. Join the conversation using #GlobalGoalsWork.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Amie Batson

    Amie Batson is chief strategy officer at PATH. She is responsible for guiding PATH’s strategy, strengthening its partnerships and business relationships in the global health community, and contributing to its advocacy and policy priorities. Amie’s 20-year career in global health includes positions with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF, and most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she served as senior deputy assistant administrator for global health.