COVID-19 pandemic risks global health infrastructure

COVID-19 pandemic risks global health infrastructure
© iStock/matejmo

A new report has found that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting health infrastructure around the world at risk.

The report, released by the non-profit Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC), has revealed that the recent innovations that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis are undermining other areas of healthcare, as pressure from the pandemic is diverting funding and expertise away from other dangerous diseases and putting clinical trials and scientific research around the world on hold indefinitely.

The report is based on qualitative interviews with experts in academia, philanthropy, industry, government agencies, and product development partnerships, and discusses how the battle against COVID-19 is affecting efforts to combat a wide range of other diseases which are still killing millions of people worldwide.

Endangering research and innovation

The interviews, conducted anonymously, included experts working at the forefront of developing new innovations for fighting challenging problems like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, dengue and a host of neglected tropical diseases. They discussed how research and product development efforts for poverty-related and neglected diseases, already fighting for resources before COVID-19 hit, are now “at significant risk of disruption due to the pandemic, despite the sector’s central role in enabling the COVID-19 R&D response.”

GHTC Director Jamie Bay Nishi, said: “A lot of veterans of global health R&D are confronting a confounding situation of a pandemic that has generated new appreciation for the value of their work while at the same time potentially causing long-term harm to the field. Global health R&D has always subsisted on thin budgets and a tight-knit coalition of infectious disease experts – and both of these, funding, and talent, are being redirected to COVID-19, which is putting many important projects in a precarious position.”

The report shows that due to the pandemic many researchers have had to put their research projects aside, as well as reports of labs affiliated with academic research institutions shifting their staff and facilities to deal with state or university COVID-19 testing demands. In one case, a lab’s entire discretionary budget was spent responding to state testing demands, so far without compensation.

Putting clinical trials at risk

The pandemic is also posing a huge risk to clinical trials with nearly every interviewee involved in clinical trials reporting significant issues, including many being delayed indefinitely, with the biggest risk being for phase III trials.

For example, in late stage trials, numerous participants were not showing up for essential follow ups due to fear of catching the virus, said one interviewee. In the report, interviewees who were managing clinical trials also noted that switching to virtual visits was proving challenging due to low-resources and because many trials require in-person follow-up to collect samples.

The work of many researchers has also been held back by the lack of reagents and the diversion of standard personal protective equipment (PPE), both of which are being diverted for the pandemic.

A ray of hope

Despite concerns raised over the COVID-19 pandemic, the report also highlighted signs of hope that it can offer in the long-term regarding innovations for infectious diseases, with one government scientist noting that the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development demonstrates that there could be rapid progress in solving a wide array of global health challenges.

Others noted that the surge of COVID-19 alliances between governments and industry has affirmed the value of public-private partnerships for producing new medical products and that there was excitement for the new insights and technologies generated over the last few months.

Nishi said: “The critical role falls to policymakers to identify and restore vital global health initiatives that have been harmed by the pandemic while capitalising on opportunities revealed by COVID-19 R&D to accelerate work on a number of diseases.

“Their decisions will determine whether the legacy of COVID-19 is a tragic setback for the broader fight against infectious diseases or a new awareness of the incredible value of investing in global health innovations.”

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