Picture: 123RF/pixinoo
Picture: 123RF/pixinoo

The government significantly increased its investments in research on neglected diseases in 2017, but still fell shy of the goals set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to a report released on Wednesday.

SA’s public sector invested $14m in neglected diseases research in 2017, a 24% increase on the year before. This made it the 11th biggest contributor to the global public funding pool of $2.318bn, according to the latest annual G-Finder report from Policy Cures Research, a health consultancy based in Sydney, Australia.

The report tracks public, private and philanthropic investments into diseases that disproportionately affect people in the developing world, and that do not have sufficient markets to attract significant private-sector investments. These include HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, as well as less common diseases such as rheumatic fever and dengue.

The WHO says governments should aim to invest 0.01% of GDP in research on neglected diseases. No country tracked by G-Finder met this goal: the US was closest, at 0.0082% of its GDP, while SA spent 0.004% of GDP in this domain.

“It was great to see investment from the SA government reaching a record high in 2017. And although the total amount is less than is provided by a number other countries, when you account for GDP, SA is right up there, behind only the US and UK. Its 2017 contribution as a proportion of GDP was also the highest ever from an LMIC (low and middle income country) government,” said Anna Doubell, director of research at Policy Cures Research

“The department of science and technology and the Medical Research Council are the two main funders, and both of them tend to fund basic research and early-stage product development research. So this is why a lot of SA funding is focused on these early stages. But organisations in SA — both government institutes and universities — are also very active in clinical trials for neglected disease product development; it is just that a lot of the funding for these activities comes from collaborations with international research organisations, for example the US NIH [National Institutes of Health],” she said.

The biggest government investor was the US, which contributed 69% ,or $1.595bn,  towards global spending on basic research and product development for neglected diseases. Global funding from all sources, including private, reached a record high of $3.566bn 2017, a 7% increase on the year before. Funding growth came mainly from Europe, and in contrast to SA, was directed at product development rather than basic research.

There were several significant new product approvals in 2017 that illustrated the impact of sustained financial investments, said Doubell.

These included fexinidazole, the first entirely oral treatment for sleeping sickness; moxidectin, the first new treatment for river blindness in 20 years; and tafenoquine, the first single-dose cure for vivax malaria, she said in a telephonic press briefing.