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Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

A quick glance at the headlines does not suggest that now is the time for optimism around global health. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect hundreds of millions of people around the world, routine healthcare services and immunisation campaigns are struggling to catch up with the pandemic backlog, and there are even fears that the millions of people displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could drive increases in rates of diseases such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in Europe.

These new challenges will not abate on their own, nor are they the only issues facing global health: Covid-19 variants, novel pathogens driven by climate change, rising rates of previously controlled infections and increasing global mobility could all give rise to a new pandemic.

Against this backdrop, leaders from the public and private sectors are meeting this week at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. High on the agenda will be the need to drive a rapid acceleration in scientific and medical breakthroughs through a renewed focus on public-private partnerships as a driver for building new, sustainable systems in and out of health and healthcare.

The good news is that we are already seeing signs of progress. Between 2011-2020, the US Food & Drug Administration alone approved an average of 41 new molecular entities to be used in the development of treatments — nearly double the number in the previous decade. Furthermore, over the same period we also saw groundbreaking advances, including cures for previously chronic diseases and the emergence of new classes of therapeutics and vaccines.

Against this fast-moving backdrop the forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health & Healthcare has found four reasons for optimism, fuelled by collaborations in the global health space and pulling through lessons learnt over the last two years in discovering and delivering medical breakthroughs to the market:

  1. Global health as a global priority. The pandemic has transformed the way individuals, companies and governments think about health, particularly public health. Companies from outside the health sector — those that have no commercial interest in selling health-related services and products — recognise more than ever that health is critical to their economic performance. That brings new thinking and new expertise into the health space. We’re also seeing new interest in the way that investors think about the role of companies in relation to health disparities, such as through the Global Health Equity Network.
  2. New structures and systems. From the UK’s Recovery Covid-19 clinical trials programme to the partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation and Open Philanthropies in the Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD) programme, the effort to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has proved that new models of development are possible. To promote equitable vaccine access, new vaccine manufacturing sites are being built in Africa and other regions that don’t currently have such capacity. We’re also seeing a concentrated push for new financial models to accelerate drug development where market incentives have failed, such as for new antibiotics.
  3. Harnessing artificial intelligence (AI). For years AI  has been touted as an accelerator for innovations in health, yet practical applications were sparse. This is now rapidly changing: startling breakthroughs in protein analysis, drug discovery, AI-assisted X-ray, and AI-enabled chatbots to tackle infectious diseases such as TB, are bringing new technology to bear in different ways. Much of the opportunities for AI to revolutionise healthcare still lie ahead. A critical component for instilling trust and successfully leveraging AI in the health space will be new frameworks for governance. Here we also see progress, such as the partnership between the forum and the government of Rwanda.
  4. Managing data. Just as with AI, there has been a lot of hype around “big data”, and progress has been striking. Beyond the Recovery trial mentioned above, efforts to use shared data from wearable devices to identify early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease are streamlining efforts to combat a growing global issue. We have also seen registries of health outcomes, such as those for certain eye operations in Europe, start to drive major improvements in value in healthcare and novel approaches to sharing critical genomic data for pathogens. Such work is being complemented by ambitious goals to expand pathogen surveillance systems for pandemic prevention as well as everyday public health decision-making.

Public-private partnerships that build trust

Of course, all of these advances rely on the right supporting systems being in place, particularly governance and privacy frameworks when it comes to personal data and the way that it is processed. As Covid-19 has shown, when people don’t trust systems, such as those relating to vaccine development or deployment, confidence can suffer with serious consequences for public health. Public and private stakeholders must work together to ensure that sustainable, robust structures are in place to underpin progress.

With an unparalleled focus on health from all stakeholders, new structures and systems, and AI and big data beginning to demonstrate their full impact, there is much to be optimistic about for the future of global health, all of which hold and require opportunities for public-private collaboration.

• McCain is head: healthcare initiatives, and Bishen head: shaping the future of health & healthcare, at the World Economic Forum.

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