Malaria R&D ‘needs better funding coordination’

Plasmodium vivax is an overlooked species of the malaria parasite Copyright: CDC

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[LONDON] Malaria control gains could be jeopardised by a lack of donor coordination and the small number of disparate funders, despite a steady growth in funding for research and development (R&D), says a report.

Investment in malaria R&D has quadrupled from US$121 million in 1993 to US$612 million in 2009, resulting in the strongest pipeline of control and prevention measures in history, according to a report published today (28 June) by Policy Cures, an independent non-profit research group with branches in Australia and the United Kingdom.

But the money has been spread unevenly among the different strategies to fight the disease — which kills three-quarters of a million people each year — according to ‘Staying the Course? Malaria Research and Development in a Time of Economic Uncertainty’.

The majority of funding goes towards drug development (38 per cent), vaccines (28 per cent) and basic research (23 per cent) with just five per cent for diagnostics and vector control development. The inequalities reflect differences in development costs but also highlight a gap in funding for diagnostics. Better coordination between public, private and philanthropic funders could help correct the inequality.

"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," Mary Moran, director of Policy Cures, told SciDev.Net.

Two organisations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health, provided half of the global malaria R&D funding between 2007 and 2009.

"This is a risky situation, because if these donors change their focus or have financial difficulties, you can lose a big chunk of your funding," said Moran.

Christine Manyando, head of the public health department at the Tropical Diseases Research Centre in Ndola, Zambia, said the report "is very important because if funding now decreases, we might go back to where we were before."

In order to achieve global plans for malaria control and eradication, the funding needs to increase modestly for the next five to six years and can then begin to decrease, says the report.

Tido von Schoen-Angerer, executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines said: "I was positively surprised to see the current situation of R&D funding for malaria. The challenge now is mainly to maintain the funding and make adjustments in the distribution between areas."

But Ian Boulton at TropMed Pharma Consulting, pointed out that although the conclusions in the report are "sensible", it may be misleading to assume that malaria prevalence will drop off as predictably as the reports suggests.

The parasite’s ability to develop resistance to new agents quite rapidly and the lack of funding for research on drugs against Plasmodium vivax, one of the overlooked species of the parasite, will remain a major obstacle to eliminating the disease, he said, adding that "it would be prudent to continue to maintain a high level of R&D to find new classes even as the ones now in development are deployed".

Link to full report  [2.73MB]