A year in review: The top stories in global health innovation that shaped 2016

This guest post was written by Kat Kelley, Senior Program Assistant at Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC), and originally appeared on GHTC’s website.

A health worker's hand holds up a cartridge of the SD BIOLINE Onchocerciasis IgG4 rapid test pre-production prototype, for diagnosing onchocerciasis (river blindness), showing a negative result.

2016 was a year that ushered in significant shifts in the global health landscape. We witnessed the waning of the Ebola epidemic and the waxing of the Zika outbreak; important leadership changes among the biggest institutional players in global health; and the development and introduction of new innovations that could turn the tide against leading infectious disease killers.

GHC Member, Global Health Technologies Coalition reflects on the top stories in global health innovation that made news in 2016. Here are seven of those top moments:

1. Scientists mobilize against Zika

Once considered an obscure virus responsible for a mild illness, Zika took the world by storm in 2016. As the virus gained a foothold in more than 60 countries, its association with devastating birth defects and neurological conditions was firmly established. Prior to Zika’s emergence in the Americas, only 25 research papers had been published on the virus. As the epidemic grew, scientists around the world joined the fight against Zika, often sharing their data and research in real time to speed progress. Thanks to the efforts of these researchers, over the past year our scientific understanding of Zika has grown exponentially, and we have advanced a robust pipeline of new tools to prevent, detect, and treat Zika. Today, there are more than 35 Zika vaccine candidates under development; 13 Zika diagnostics have been authorized for use by the US Food and Drug Administration; and researchers are screening novel compounds and evaluating existing drugs to advance treatments for the disease.

2. The world commits to the fight against antimicrobial resistance

2016 marked the year the world finally got serious about tackling antimicrobial resistance. On the heels of several major analyses examining the potentially devastating health and economic impact of antimicrobial resistance, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly convened global leaders for a high-level summit on antimicrobial resistance—the fourth time such a meeting has been held on a health-related topic during the UN’s 71-year history. At the close of the summit, UN member states unanimously endorsed and adopted a political declaration committing to developing action plans and policies; mobilizing resources; and supporting public awareness, surveillance, and R&D efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance. It is our hope that 2017 will mark the year political commitment translates to concrete action to advance the development of new antibiotics.

3. New strategies deployed to stymie mosquito-borne diseases

Mosquito-borne diseases remain an age-old scourge, but 2016 saw the advancement of several novel strategies to combat these tiny foes.

Efforts to combat mosquito-borne diseases with the transmission blocking–bacteria Wolbachia took an important leap forward this year. Past studies have shown that when the Wolbachia bacteria is introduced to Aedes aegypti mosquitos—which carry viruses like Zika and yellow fever—it prevents the viruses from replicating and blocks further transmission. Because the bacteria can be passed from one generation of mosquitoes to the next, the bacteria offers hope for eliminating a virus’s presence within a local mosquito population. After several years of conducting small-scale tests of this method, the Eliminate Dengue Program announced in 2016 it would begin conducting two large-scale trials in South America to determine whether this approach is effective in halting the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in large urban settings.

This year the biotech company Oxitec also advanced efforts to test the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce mosquito populations and disease transmission. The company has engineered mosquitoes that mate with A. aegyptimosquitoes, producing offspring that are unable to mature to adulthood. Early last year, Oxitec introduced the mosquitoes into the Brazilian city of Piracicaba, resulting in an 82 percent decrease in the population of A. aegypti mosquitoes in just nine months. Now, Oxitec has expanded the trial to a larger geographical area and is also initiating trials in the Florida Keys and the Cayman Islands.

4. World’s first kid-friendly TB medicine launches

Children who receive tuberculosis (TB) medicines require a different dose than adults, yet until this year, there were no TB medicines designed specifically for children, so parents were forced to split or crush adult pills in an attempt to administer the right dose to their child. This year, that all changed with the launch of the world’s first kid-friendly TB medication. Developed by TB Alliance, the medicine is designed with the unique needs of children in mind: It is fruit-flavored, dissolvable in water, easy to administer, and appropriately-dosed. Already, more than 30 countries have adopted the new medicines, and enough orders have been placed to treat half of childhood TB cases worldwide.

5. Unique HIV prevention option for women reaches important development milestone

Women may soon have a powerful new tool at their disposal to prevent HIV infection. Earlier this year, the International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM) announced the results of two large phase 3 clinical trials demonstrating that a monthly vaginal ring containing the antiretroviral drug dapivirine can help protect women from HIV. While initial results indicated that the dapivirine ring reduced HIV risk by approximately 30 percent, further analysis revealed that the ring reduced infection rates by 75 percent in women who used the ring consistently. Now, IPM is seeking regulatory approval for the dapivirine ring and is conducting open-label studies, enabling trial participants to continue using the ring as IPM collects additional data. The dapivirine ring is the only long-acting, female-initiated HIV prevention tool to have proven successful in phase 3 clinical trials. Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are more than twice as likely to be infected with HIV than their male counterparts, and thus female-centered prevention tools are needed stem the epidemic.

6. Roll out begins of world’s first malaria vaccine candidate

After decades of development and testing, the world’s first malaria vaccine candidate will soon be introduced in several communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The vaccine—RTS,S—was developed by PATH and GlaxoSmithKline and received a positive opinion from the European Medicines Agency last year following completion of phase 3 clinical trials. In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would pilot and evaluate the vaccine in real-life settings, thanks to funding from The Global Fund; UNITAID; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Pending results of these pilot tests, WHO will determine whether to deploy the vaccine on a wider scale.

7. New global health technologies advance through the pipeline

Over the past year, several other promising new health innovations have moved through the development pipeline and one step closer to reaching the hands of patients:

  • Two important health tools—a novel, affordable oral cholera vaccine developed by the International Vaccine Institute, and the Woman’s Condom developed by PATH and partners—received WHO prequalification this year, paving the way for their procurement by UN agencies and other international procurement organizations.
  • Two new rapid diagnostic tests for the neglected tropical diseases onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis were launched this year. Developed by PATH, these tests provide results in just 30 minutes and can be stored at a wide range of temperatures.
  • Development has begun for an affordable therapy for hepatitis C. In 2013, the world’s first cures for hepatitis C hit the US market, however, treatment remains out of reach for many patients due to the high price tag. This year, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative announced it would begin testing an alternative therapy in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials, with a guarantee from the manufacturer that, if successful, the entire regimen will be sold for no more than US$294.

As 2017 begins, it is time for the global health community to redouble our efforts to make sure this vital progress in global health innovation continues to ensure that people around the world will have access to lifesaving and life-improving health technologies.