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'The Ebola crisis was a wake-up call'

Interview: Fabian SchmidtOctober 14, 2015

Tackling Ebola has shown that research yields good results when the public and private sectors work together. But it's hard to get them to. DW speaks with the head of a Japanese non-profit that's bridging the gap.

Schistosoma worm
The Schistosoma worm ist the second-leading cause of growth disorders in small childrenImage: picture-alliance/OKAPIA

DW: The World Health Summit just concluded in Berlin. What was the most important outcome for you?

BT Slingsby: Agreements to get moving on innovation in public health and global health in the field of infectious diseases.

For me, the most important outcome is when a product reaches patients and the community and is able to affect their health - discovering and developing innovations and delivering them to the populations that are in need.

Can you give an example of how that works in practice?

Our fund brings investments together from different sectors, and we invest them in product development. For example, we have a partnership project with the German company Merck, the Swiss TPH [insitute] and the Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas. We invest in a project to allow the production of a special pediatric formula on the basis of an existing drug called Praziquantel. That drug is being used to combat schistosomiasis - an infectious disease caused by worms [pictured top]. This potentially lethal disease is the second-leading cause of growth disorders and learning problems in small children in the developing world.

BT Slingsby CEO GHIT Fund
Slingsby believes that there is common ground between industry, research and the public sectorImage: GHIT-Fund

The formula we're developing will allow children to better access the drug. It will be easy to swallow, a dissolvable tablet - and not that massive tablet that's currently available, and which has a bitter taste and is very difficult to consume.

Financing such research is often difficult since pharmaceutical companies have to make sure their investment provides returns. Who can bridge the gap when research that isn't necessarily profitable needs to be financed?

Regardless of how successful or skilled researchers are from institutions like universities, they'll mostly be unable to develop a product for the market or for global health. That requires the industrial sector. The question is: How do you get the private sector involved? Businesses will not go it alone. There are no commercial incentives to develop these public goods, per se.

What we, as the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT) are doing, is this: We're footing the bill by paying for the research and development. Companies do not have to take on all the financial risks.

At the Global health Summit, did you sense that the public sector and the private sector are more willing than before to take such common steps?

Absolutely. Ebola was very much a wake-up call for our global society. Regardless of whether we're dealing with a pandemic, such as Ebola, or antimicrobial resistance, or with more endemic diseases like malaria or tuberculosis - all of those infectious diseases have one thing in common: Innovations do not come from the free market on its own. But we need these innovations - and therapies, vaccines and diagnostics.

I believe, in the wake of the Ebola epidemic, a we'll be building a lot of momentum in terms of what we need to do as a global society - what the G7 needs to do, what the G20 needs to do, what UN organizations, the World Bank, the private sector need to do - what we need to do collectively in order to resolve this problem, by giving birth to new technologies against infectious diseases.

BT Slingsby is a global disease expert and CEO of the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund, which is based in Japan. The non-profit organization uses money from private and public donors to bring researchers and industry together to deliver affordable vaccines, drugs and diagnostics to those in need throughout the world.