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Not enough investment in TB drug research

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Research into desperately needed new TB drugs is flagging because governments and pharmaceutical companies are not investing enough in the field.

Business Day reports that scientists warned on the eve of the 21st International AIDS Conference that TB is the world’s biggest infectious killer – it killed 1.5m people in 2014 and its spread in countries such as South Africa has been fuelled by HIV, as it makes people more vulnerable to infection. South Africa had the world’s second-highest TB infection rate and an estimated 380,000 TB patients in 2014, making it the 9th-highest burden country in the world.

“To effectively address the epidemic we must invest in new science,” University of Copenhagen infectious diseases specialist Jens Lundgren told delegates attending TB 2016, a two-day meeting organised by the International Aids Society ahead of the conference. He said the money put aside for TB drug development was insignificant compared with that for HIV/Aids, citing analysis by the Treatment Action Group. It found $2.6bn was spent on HIV drug research in 2011, but just $243m was dedicated to work on TB drugs. The US Food and Drug Administration had approved more than 37 HIV drugs or drug combinations since 1987, but in that time only one TB drug had passed scrutiny, with another pending, he said.

“The stagnation of the pipeline is treacherous,” said the head of the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine Valerie Mizrahi in the report, warning that lack of investment was placing promising projects at risk. Mizrahi said TB scientists needed to harness the experience of Aids activists, who had successfully lobbied for new drugs and diagnostics. “The Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases and Astra Zeneca India both shut down their TB drug development units, and no one chained themselves to the gates and demanded change,” she said.

The report said, according to Swiss Global Health Institute director Stewart Cole, European governments were being short-sighted in their failure to invest TB drug development, as they faced huge immigration from high TB burden countries such as Syria. He said Horizon 2020, the EU’s €80bn research funding programme, had failed to include a single call for applications for TB drug research, though it had offered opportunities for TB vaccine studies.

The report said more than 80% of global money for drug research and development was provided by the US National Institute’s of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leaving the EU with limited scope to determine the research agenda, he said.

Results executive director Joanne Carter said in the report that the research funding shortfall reflected the broader challenges of TB, which had climbed to the top of the list of infectious killers because in was so low on the list of priorities in many parts of the world.

Full Business Day report

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