UNCTAD's Shamika Sirimanne: 'this is a moment of collective consciousness'

Health officials prepare to vaccine residents of the Malawi village of Migowi. Source: Keystone.

“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” This is United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 3, and it resonates more than ever today as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread. Science, technology and innovation (STI) can make a significant contribution to close the gap in achieving that goal, particularly in strengthening the capacity of countries in risk prevention and reduction.

The pandemic, however, cannot undermine the importance of tackling other major health issues, where STIs can make a difference. To bring focus and attention to the question, the UNCTAD Commission on Science and Technology for Development is holding its intersessional panel meeting this week. It aims to address three main aspects of global heath issues, according to the advanced drafted report published in January: primary healthcare, poverty-related diseases, and health emergencies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Division director Shamika Sirimanne told Geneva Solutions about the challenges ahead and the hope that a global cooperation could bring.

Why this is important. Today, many health issues are preventable or treatable, if the right measures are taken at the right time. Considering STIs as a means to an end doesn’t necessarily imply using frontier technology only. Sirimanne explains.

“In many cases, low-tech, low-cost solutions can be used to address primary healthcare, maternal and child health, poverty-related diseases, and infectious diseases. But they need to reach the poor. And that is not happening”

Acting now is urgent. According to the division’s drafted report, every year, more than five million children die before the age of five due to preventable or treatable causes, most of them in developing countries. But with the help of innovation, numbers can change, as shown below.

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Source: UNCTAD.

In Zanzibar, for example, D-tree International has set up a programme base on predictive analytics and machine learning, helping to identify risk factors and thus lowering the mortality rate.

Poverty-related diseases. The report shows that in the first decade of 2000, poverty-related diseases such as malaria or HIV, received little support. Only 10 per cent of research and development was devoted to 90 per cent of the global disease burden. Sirimanne continues:

“This is a gross injustice as far as we are concerned. And most of 90 per cent of disease burden is to do with the diseases of the poor. And pharmaceutical companies know that this sector is not profitable. So they're not interested. But the question is how can we use the Covid-19 health emergency and the realisation that we are all in this together to help those in dire need of help? Can we use that goodwill to also highlight the fact that there are other diseases out there, and that people are dying unnecessarily? And can we galvanise international collaboration, can we bring donors to muster a big effort to address these issues too? I think this is a moment that we should not let go of, because it is a moment of collective consciousness, of the world realizing that basic health is a global public good.”

Challenges ahead. STIs can produce very concrete solutions, as the fight against Covid-19 showed in 2020 in early warnings or contact tracing. They do however carry their load of complications as well.

“You can put all the information out, have contact tracing established, and use crowd sourcing tools to monitor the disease spread, but you need ICT connectivity to reach people. Yet, today, 50 per cent of the world is not connected to the internet. Countries also need a basic level of digital skills to adapt and manage these digital applications.”

The level of skills becomes even more important to face the other challenges raised by the use of technology: data privacy and ethical concerns. Hence, the importance of a collective dialogue on ethics and governance of emerging technologies such as gene editing, AI and big data.

An example : WIPO Re:Search. The report highlights the many initiatives in mobilising international action in science, technology, and innovation for health that have been launched. One example is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and BIO Ventures for Global Health’s project, Re:Search.

It focuses on accelerating the discovery and development of technologies for neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis by sharing intellectual property on a royalty-free basis with the global health research community across 42 countries and including leading pharmaceutical companies, contributing to capacity-building in developing countries. Re:Search has fostered 164 collaboration agreements since 2011.

Scaling up. The complexity in the nature of the cited examples in the report resides in the fact that most of them remain at the stage of pilot projects, Sirimanne regrets.

“There are amazing initiatives done at a very low scale, almost like lab experiments, because they are introduced in very small communities. Once these pilots are completed, they are just written up as success stories. But how do we scale them up? This is where international cooperation comes into play. Building capacities of the local communities, bringing local firms to innovate, produce, and have their own patterns. All these things can be done, but you need a lot of goodwill from all parties.”

The drafted report sets this collaboration within a three dimensional process. Supporting national innovation ecosystems, making healthcare technologies accessible for all and strengthening multilateral cooperation. The forum organised by the Commission on Science and Technology for Development is serving this purpose. By opening the discussion, the idea is to ask countries to reach out to developing countries, to create that bridge to share knowledge and technology, and help to accelerate the process and transcend the existing inequalities in healthcare.

The pandemic has definitely changed our perspective on health emergencies. Will it contribute to shedding light on other equally important health issues? If STIs can bring concrete results, it is now up to the local and international decision-makers to fill the gap in achieving SDG 3.