Achieving universal health coverage will require innovative new technologies

Discussions at last month’s United Nations (UN) General Assembly served as a stark reminder of the danger United Nations and World Health Organization policies pose to the development of new innovations. Many of these initiatives spawn controversial and non-evidence-based proposals that include repeated attempts to attack intellectual property rights, even though these rights are a key ingredient in the creation of new technologies and innovations that people can rely on to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Over the past five decades, innovation in the field of medical technology has given scientists powerful tools to develop new procedures and drugs and has resulted in unprecedented advancements in human longevity. Since 2000, life expectancy has increased by 5.5 years and the vaccination rate for three major illnesses affecting children – diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – has risen by more than 10 percent to an all-time high of 86 percent. But there is much work yet to do.

More than half of the world's population faces barriers to accessing critical health products and services to combat the ever-increasing level of non-infectious diseases such as obesity and heart disease. Age-old diseases, such as malaria, are also re-emerging and have the potential to come roaring back if we do not adequately control their causes by developing new drugs.

In the case of malaria, during the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in resistance to the world’s most powerful antimalarial drugs. For it to be effectively controlled, and ultimately eradicated, new drugs are required to overcome the malaria parasite which is constantly evolving. Encouragingly, pharmaceutical firm Novartis recently partnered with a group of academic and non-profit organisations to develop a next-generation antimalarial drug while also strengthening clinical research capacities in Africa – the region that is most severely affected by this devastating disease. These efforts, however, are being undermined by the multilateral and other international organisations which seek to dismantle the intellectual property rights regime that spurs on the development and delivery of such essential products to market.

Strategies to control the malaria spreading mosquito are also required to break the transmission cycle. A promising new strategy by Target Malaria, a Gates Foundation-supported research effort, has developed genetically modified (GM) sterile mosquitoes. Its approach is to drive modified genes through a mosquito population to produce sterile females or cause the breeding of only males. The goal is to reduce mosquito populations to such an extent so that the malaria parasite cannot be spread from person to person.

Earlier this year, Target Malaria ran a carefully controlled experimental release in Burkina Faso. The test followed years of research and similar successful releases in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, none of that mattered to radical environmentalists. They mobilised against this important measure, demanding the project be shut down immediately.

It remains to be seen whether this GM technology will work in the field and be a practical public health tool. For us to advance and find new technologies, experimentation must take place. Unfortunately, the large and growing campaign against all modern genetic technologies and pesticides used in both disease control and agriculture that seeks to shut down any and all testing is being promoted by UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as European governments and European Union-funded non-governmental organisations. These approaches are not only overly-narrow, they are actively dangerous to long-term health outcomes.

Narrowly focused proposals that ignore the realities of bringing innovative new technologies and drugs to market set back our efforts to address global challenges by undermining the private sector's ability to innovate and marginalise a source of resources and expertise fundamental to the fight for better health outcomes.

Achieving universal health coverage will require innovative new technologies and well-crafted, policies to solve tomorrow’s health challenges. With such a monumental challenge before us, we cannot afford to adopt policies that marginalise the private sector and undermine concrete progress. For generations the world over, to enjoy better health and a longer life, we can settle for no less.

Jasson Urbach is an economist and a director at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Free Market Foundation.
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