May 10, 2019

Innovating the way towards UHC at WHA

Policy and Advocacy Officer
PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

Universal health coverage (UHC)—the idea that everyone, everywhere, should be able to access quality health services—will take center stage at the World Health Assembly (WHA) later this month. World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has made UHC a top priority, as his institution estimates that at least half of the world’s population still does not have full coverage of essential health services.

While there are many building blocks to achieve UHC—from galvanizing political will and investment to strengthening health systems and training health personnel—one integral pillar that is too often overlooked is innovation—the creation of new and improved drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tools. Global health research and development (R&D) is indispensable in delivering on the vision of quality health for all. 

R&D a vital component to achieve UHC

Health systems cannot meet the fundamental needs of their populations without high-quality and accessible drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics with which to treat, prevent, and detect disease. Today, we still lack many of the tools needed to combat diseases and conditions that exact a tremendous health burden in the world’s poorest places. 

No preventative vaccines exist for many neglected diseases, including Chagas, leishmaniasis, and chikungunya, and treatments available are often inadequate or toxic. Tuberculosis (TB) sufferers today face six to twenty months of treatment, involving thousands of pills and painful injections. We still don’t have the right tests to diagnose many infectious diseases at point of care, leaving patients wondering and waiting for care. The goal of ending AIDS will remain out of reach without a vaccine or cure. Meanwhile, growing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) against malaria, TB, and other infectious diseases threatens to roll back progress and is adding even greater urgency to the need to develop new innovations to prevent emerging resistance. Neglected diseases affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide and jeopardize achieving UHC for the most vulnerable among us.

As the global community invests in policies and programs that support UHC, it must also prioritize R&D for new health technologies, especially where markets don’t catalyze these investments on their own. It will be impossible to truly deliver quality care for all without new innovations. Delivering the next generation of lifesaving health technologies will require strong political commitment and increased investment from all nations. To make that happen, it’s critical that the world explicitly acknowledge the importance of global health R&D to attaining UHC.

WHO’s role 

WHO has a crucial role to play in strengthening R&D and access to achieve UHC. Through its global convening power, WHO sets the agenda and is often the institution policymakers rely upon to frame their countries’ health priorities and lead the implementation of important programs vital to improving access to quality treatment and services. For example, WHO’s essential medicines and diagnostic lists are highly vetted, evidence-based recommendations that provide member states with a robust framework to determine key investment, health service, and policy priorities. 

WHO also provides technical expertise and capacity-building programs to build regulatory frameworks that accelerate access to medicines and create stronger enabling environments for global health R&D. This includes supporting the development of laboratory systems and infrastructure, as well as clinical trial capacity. For everything ranging from establishing safety standards, to producing treatment guidelines for infectious diseases, to designating good clinical research practices, WHO sets the normative technical standards and provides clear targets for low- and middle-income countries for health system strengthening. WHO must continue to use its global convening power to facilitate coordination and alignment of priorities in order to advance the UHC agenda. 

This is why the 72nd WHA meeting presents the global health community with an opportunity to ensure that WHO continues to play a significant role in supporting R&D by stepping up its efforts to catalyze additional investment, build capacity, and provide resources to stakeholders to facilitate the development and effective deployment of tools to patients globally. While governments can, and should, play a leading role in the global UHC movement, WHO will also play an important part in making the vision of quality health for all a reality. As the world gets ready to descend on Geneva for WHA week, global health advocates should remember that there is no UHC without R&D.