Advocates reflect on why R&D is essential for achieving universal health coverage
As health advocates, it has been tremendous to see the growing momentum for actionable efforts to move society toward the goal of universal health coverage (UHC). This momentum is largely due to galvanizing support from Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization, and the Health for All campaign. Policymakers have also been lining up to support this effort. From Geneva to Nairobi, from Astana to Addis, commitments are being made to redouble efforts to ensure all people, no matter where they live, have access to basic health services. Importantly, there has been recognition that our goals will not be achieved without health research and development (R&D). We cannot deliver on the goal of achieving universal access to basic primary care services if we do not have the right tools needed to tackle the health challenges we face today and tomorrow. That is why biomedical innovation must go hand-in-hand with system improvements to achieve universal health coverage.
As we reflect on the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) and look ahead to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, where leaders from around the world will convene for the High-Level Meeting on UHC, we anticipate that more support will be galvanized for R&D across health systems—and especially in low- and middle-income countries.
With the goal of elevating R&D for UHC and giving civil society organizations a seat at the table, PATH supported four R&D advocates to attend WHA. These advocates traveled to Geneva on behalf of their own organizations as well as their respective coalitions—the South African Health Technologies Coalition (SAHTAC) in South Africa and the Coalition for Health Research and Development (CHReaD) in Kenya—which have been advocating for R&D for health since 2015. Below are their reflections on why R&D is essential to achieving our goals on UHC.
Lauren Pretorius, SAHTAC member and chief executive officer of Campaigning for Cancer, reflected on what she hopes policymakers will learn as they take up the issue of universal health coverage. She said, “I would like policy makers to know that we need a sustainable financing strategy for R&D with strong leadership guiding the investment in tomorrow’s chances at a healthy life for all. It is only through innovation that we will ensure no one is left behind. This begins with a collaborative effort in harmonizing the regulatory framework in our region.”
At WHA, CHReaD and SAHTAC members met with regulators from Nigeria, Botswana, Zambia, and the United States as well as key WHO and private sector stakeholders to discuss how different sectors can play a role in advancing harmonization efforts across sub-Saharan Africa. The message rang loud and clear that strengthening regulatory capacities through harmonization is a critical part of ensuring patients have access to high-quality lifesaving medical products. Advocates have a central role to play in educating decision-makers and advocating for investment in regulatory strengthening.
Nutritionist Beatrice Okere, a CHReaD member, reflected on the importance of local manufacturing to ensure access to high-quality medicines and health products. She noted that declarations have been made at the national and regional levels, including by the African Union, about establishing local production for essential medicines and medical products in Africa to lower costs of these products and support job creation. However, she said the realization of local production requires a holistic approach.
“The dream for local production will require a holistic approach to ensure political commitment and good will from involved governments, access to sufficient financing and technology for the project, needs-based innovation, investment incentives, and policy coherence to ensure the quality, safety, and efficacy of medicines and medical products,” Okere said.
CHReaD member James Kamau, chief executive officer of Kenya Treatment Access Movement (KETAM), highlighted a specific policy he believes will help advance UHC. The Essential Diagnostics List, established by the WHO, includes 62 types of diagnostic tests that countries should have available. He noted, “We need to urgently engage diagnostics companies with a view of working on the pricing, to ensure we not only make sure low-cost diagnostics are available to quickly diagnose and enable patients to be treated, but to also factor in the cost-effectiveness goal that is part of UHC.”
Finally, Ntando Yola, a SAHTAC member who is the community engagement and advocacy lead at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, explained, “A country that invests in R&D generally is investing in its people and their well-being. Since the objective of UHC is to distribute health care in an equitable manner to the general population, it requires a very informed approach, especially in the context of South Africa’s history of inequality. Therefore, generating critical knowledge will be a cornerstone for ensuring the UHC goal is achieved. Knowledge generation therefore requires investment in research and development to ensure that implementation keeps up with the evolution of society and its dynamics. Research on gaps from a systems viewpoint, as well as related to medicines and technologies development, will be identified through R&D, and serves as a propeller of effective UHC delivery. This is what I would want policy makers to understand as a role of R&D toward UHC.”
This post was written by Johnpaul Omollo and Sibusiso Hlatjwako, PATH. Johnpaul Omollo is a policy and advocacy officer at PATH, based in Kenya. Sibusiso Hlatjwako is PATH’s advocacy and partnerships manager in South Africa. PATH is driven by an unshakeable commitment to health equity and a bold belief in the power of innovation to improve health and save lives. For 40 years, PATH has been a pioneer in translating bold ideas into breakthrough health solutions, with a focus on child survival, maternal and reproductive health, and infectious diseases.