Cape Town - Four South African research institutions are among the top 100 funders of tuberculosis (TB) research in the world according to a new report released on Monday.
If the country could triple TB research funding in the next three years, it could even outstrip richer countries.
The Medical Research Council, the Department of Science and Technology, as well as the National Research Foundation and National Health Laboratory Services are among the top 100 institutions worldwide financially backing TB research, according to the US HIV activist organisation the Treatment Action Group’s latest report tracking international funding for new TB drugs and tests.
According to the report, South Africa spends more than three times what fellow high burden country Brazil does on TB research but still makes up less than one percent of the world’s TB research funding. Globally, TB research spending has virtually stagnated at 2009 levels, notes TAG’s TB/HIV Project Officer Mike Frick.
“TB kills 1.5 million people a year and is now the leading cause of death from an infectious disease globally,” said Frick, adding that R9.7 billion spent on TB research last year is still R18-billion short of global targets. “TB research has never received the resources equal to its outsized toll on human health.”
Amid a slowing economy, Treasury has said that the public service is unlikely to grow in the next three years. According to Daygen Eagar of the Rural Health Advocacy Project, the country could see cuts in education and health spending as many provincial health departments are already experiencing austerity measures.
However Frick and others argue that South Africa must scale up funding. With such low levels of international funding, even a modest boost could make a massive difference, he argued.
“If South Africa tripled its funding for TB research over the next three years - moving from US$4.7-million in 2014 to US$15-million in 2017 - it would outspend Germany, France, Switzerland and Canada,” he said. “Even modest increases in funding for TB research could make a sizable and meaningful difference.”
In a country where TB kills more than 800 000 people annually, South Africans have an obligation to fund TB research, says Treatment Action Campaign Head of Policy Marcus Low.
“Spending more is a moral imperative,” said Low who added South Africa should not have to foot TB’s bill alone but should instead rally other BRICs countries – or Brazil, Russia, India and China – to create a new research funding mechanism.
Low also said that while the continued expansion of South Africa’s antiretroviral programme will likely help prevent many TB cases, the country must also invest in finding new and better TB treatment drugs.
Only six new TB drug compounds are in development and without increased research and development funding doctors will be left cobbling together treatment regimens in an effort to outsmart the quickly evolving bacteria, according to Frick.
“What we need most urgently is a wholly new regimen, but that will require closing the (R 7.2 billion) funding gap in TB drug research,” he said.
“There is also a tragic form of collective amnesia at work,” Frick said. “Many people around the world…believe that TB is a problem we conquered in the past.”
“This has allowed governments and (pharmaceutical) industry to treat TB research as an afterthought when it should be a priority,” he added.
TB funding is expected to be a hot topic at the World Conference on Lung Health, which kicks off in Cape Town on December 2.