Funders prioritising basic research over applications

Pneumococcal vaccine rollout in Kenya, thanks to a product development partnership Copyright: GAVI/2011/Riccardo Gangale

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[LONDON] Global funding for neglected disease research and development (R&D) has moved away from the development of new products — such as drugs and vaccines — and back towards domestic basic research, according to a major annual study.

The third Global Funding of Innovation for Neglected Diseases (G-FINDER) study, launched today (16 February) in the United Kingdom, has found that overall funding increased by just over eight per cent from 2008 to 2009 and was better distributed between diseases — with HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis research, which traditionally take the lion’s share, receiving five per cent less. But funding for product development partnerships (PDPs) fell by US$50 million.

The partnerships, set up in recent years to share the risk of getting an innovation to market, now have in the pipeline more than 140 drug, vaccine and diagnostic products, such as the drug company GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS,S malaria vaccine, which is in late-stage clinical trials.

Mary Moran, director of Policy Cures, an independent group that aims to accelerate the uptake of new products for disease and which published the report, said that the shift to domestic basic research is in part because national public organisations are contributing proportionally more to funding.

In 2009 they contributed two-thirds of funding compared with a fifth from philanthropic organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Four organisations drove the rise in funding: The US National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Defense, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the UK Medical Research Council.

Moran said that the shift away from product development was "reminiscent of pre-2000," when there was an "endless focus on domestic researchers rather than applied research". She said that it was "a shame" to see this happen now that there is a portfolio of products in trials.

"Public governments have increased their funding but they’re using it domestically because of the financial crisis," Moran told SciDev.Net. "They’re using it on areas that they feel safe with. When you do that, you stop sending money to PDPs and you stop focusing on product development.

"One of the things we’re trying to look at is whether there’s a structured way to assess the health return on investment — which products are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck. That’s something we think funders would find helpful, but whether you can do such a thing I don’t know."

Malcolm McNeil, senior health advisor at DFID, warned at the launch that the next report might reveal even more cutbacks because, in 2009, the worst of the economic crisis had not hit.

"We need to focus not just on getting more funding but on getting more results and more outcomes from the funding that’s there."

Tido von Schoen-Angerer, executive director of the non−governmental organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, said: "The report confirms that a lot of the PDPs are under real funding pressure now, and it’s right at the time when many of them are moving into the more costly clinical development. So this is clearly a concern but I think it also puts the PDPs under pressure to show that they can deliver and are efficient.

"I think there is some good news from the report in the sense that there has clearly been an increase in funding … that is very positive in light of the financial crisis. In particular it’s been very good to see there’s now this increase from public funding. We have long said that this is a public responsibility."

Link to full report  [7.54MB]