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Malaria R&D needs better coordination

6 Jul 2011

Patrick Adams

Source: TropIKA.net

Funding for malaria R&D has never been stronger. Over the past two decades, the dollar amount invested in research and development of malaria control and prevention tools has more than quadrupled, going from $121 million in 1993 to $612 million in 2009.

But according to a new report published by Policy Cures, a non-profit research group devoted to accelerating the development and uptake of new pharmaceutical products for diseases of the developing world, much of that investment will be wasted without improved R&D funding policies.

In “Staying the Course: Malaria Research and Development in a Time of Economic Uncertainty,” experts argue that while malaria R&D is “no longer neglected and underfunded,” those fragile gains “may be reversed without continued funding and changes to funding patterns.”

Specifically, they say, malaria R&D funding must be more efficiently distributed. At present, the majority of funding goes toward drug development (38 per cent), vaccines (28 per cent) and basic research (23 per cent). Diagnostics and vector control development account for a mere five percent combined. While that disparity reflects differences in development costs, it also underscores a yawning gap in funding for diagnostics. The solution: better coordination between public, private and philanthropic funders.

As Policy Cures director Mary Moran told SciDev.net, “this can be done by providing funders with information, so everyone knows what everyone else is doing, shared metrics allowing to compare different projects; and, finally, a forum where major funders can meet.”

Between 2007 and 2009, just two organizations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)—provided half of the global malaria R&D funding and were responsible for 85 percent of the global increase in malaria funding, with the Gates Foundation leading the way. The latter provided 30 percent of global funding in 2009.

The Gates Foundation also provided more than three-quarters of funding for malaria product development partnerships (PDPs) in 2008-2009, allowing the latter to play a central role in product development. According to the report, PDPs managed around one quarter of all malaria R&D funding, nearly 40 percent of global grant funding and half of all drug and vaccine projects in the global malaria R&D pipeline.

Although the Gates Foundation’s contribution is admirable, malaria R&D funding is “troubling concentrated,” write the authors. This situation renders it “extremely susceptible to changing investment decisions from major funders, with obvious implications for risk, funding security and continuity of product development.”

In addition to creating a risky situation, says Moran, that concentration also reflects a narrow set of policies and preferences. The high concentration of public funding, for example, has been an important factor behind the increased investment in basic research between 2007 and 2009. “High levels of basic research grants have implications for matching funding to product need, since grant criteria are often based on quality of the science rather than the degree to which the activity matches developing country application or need, or the overall global product development goals.”

The consequences could come in the form of, for example, a shift in R&D focus from developing country needs to military as groups such as the US Department of Defense increase investments while others remain stagnant.

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