USAID innovators poised to take on today’s grandest global health challenge

August 03, 2020

By: Marissa Chmiola, Senior Communications Lead, Global Health Technologies Coalition

With support from the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) global health Grand Challenges for Development program led by the Center for Innovation and Impact, innovators from across the globe have been designing and scaling up affordable solutions to the world’s most significant global health challenges, from saving lives at birth to fighting Ebola, Zika, and other threats. These brilliant minds have transformed a trick to remove a cork from a bottle into a product to safely deliver babies and created an app to identify disease-carrying mosquitoes by the sound of their buzz.

With the toll of COVID-19 now intensifying in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), many of these innovators are turning their attention to this grandest of global health challenges we face—drawing on their unique expertise to leverage or adapt existing technologies to help fight COVID-19 in the world’s poorest places. This work is essential given many of the COVID-19 interventions deployed in high-income countries, like the United States, are ill-suited for use in low-resource settings, which often lack electricity, clean water, or adequate health infrastructure. Yet thus far, Congress has largely overlooked the importance of supporting LMICs in responding to this crisis, something policymakers should remedy as the pass this next round of COVID-19 appropriations.

Examples of impact-ready innovations already being advanced by previous USAID Grand Challenge winners which could be mobilized to fight COVID-19 globally include:

  • DripAssist, a low-cost tool—developed by Ebola Grand Challenge winner Shift Labs—that manages the flow rate of IV treatments with a simple gravity system, replacing the need for expensive, difficult-to-use infusion pumps. Costing less than one-tenth of the price of a traditional IV pump, DripAssist requires no maintenance and runs on a single AA battery, making it particularly suitable for use in resource-limited settings. With many of the first potential COVID-19 treatments like remdesivir requiring IV administration, this is an important tool to improve patient care in LMICs.
  • Highlight, an ingenious powder—developed by Ebola Grand Challenge winner Kinnos—that temporarily turns disinfectant blue, so it is visible during application before fading back to clear once a surface has been decontaminated. This helps health care workers ensure they have fully covered and decontaminated areas, important for stopping the spread of highly infectious diseases like COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, Highlight’s developers are working to scale up production to provide the product at a discount in LMICs.

    Photo credit: Kinnos

  • A biometric patient ID system—developed by Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge (SL@B) innovator Simprints—to help health care systems reliably identify patients to improve disease surveillance, contract tracing, and care management. Simprints’ main flagship product uses a fingerprint scanner for patient identification, but the team is now testing a contactless system for COVID-19 that uses mobile phone cameras and palm/facial recognition. More than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to reliable identification, complicating health care treatment and tracking efforts.
  • A simple-to-use, rapid point-of-care COVID-19 test designed for low-resource settings—developed by SL@B innovator Rice University—that offers results in 30 minutes or less, using a platform that is expected to cost less than $5,000 per instrument and less than $2 per test. With USAID support, Rice is validating the test and pursuing emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration.

While clearly there is no shortage of high-impact ideas to bolster the fight against COVID-19 in LMICs, to identify the best solutions and advance them from proof of concept to widespread availability, additional funding is urgently needed.

That’s why GHTC, leading global health and development organizations, and Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are urging Congress to provide additional emergency funding to support the international COVID-19 response—including support for USAID to advance innovations for low-resource settings through models such as a Grand Challenge for COVID-19.

USAID and its network of innovators have a long and storied track record of delivering tools that are as effective in low-income countries as they are in high-income countries, uniquely equipping the agency and its partners to take on this grandest global health challenge yet.

A lot is at stake in getting this international response right. After all, we will not defeat this disease anywhere until we defeat it everywhere.