We can end the three biggest infectious disease epidemics if we want to. So why aren’t we?
That was my question to business leaders at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But it’s also a question the global health community needs to ask itself.
Two weeks ago, I met with President Emmanuel Macron of France to launch the Global Fund’s Investment Case, which calls for at least $14 billion to help the world get back on track to end HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria and to accelerate progress toward health and well-being for all, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3. While in Davos, I called on private sector leaders to mobilize at least $1 billion of that target.
Why should private companies shoulder some of the responsibility for improving global health? Good health is a powerful driver of productivity, of social stability and economic growth, while health-related risks, such as infectious disease outbreaks, can cause immense disruption to business activity.
The private sector has the expertise and resources to help turn the tide against these diseases, which account for more than 3 million deaths a year, and to ensure we translate the ambition of Sustainable Development Goal 3 into reality. But apart from companies directly involved in health as part of their business, few of the world’s largest companies have articulated a strategy for how they will contribute to improving global health, let alone set metrics against which they can measure their progress.
That’s in sharp contrast to how such companies approach climate change and the environment. Most major companies today have a strategy for mitigating environmental risk and measure their progress against well-defined metrics, suggesting that the environmental community has had far more success in engaging and challenging the entire corporate sector than the global health community.
I’m calling on business leaders — not just those in the health sector, but across the corporate landscape — to play a role in tackling some of the world’s biggest health burdens and risks. And I’m calling on health leaders to open their minds to engage more effectively with the private sector.
I realize that some people in the global health community regard the private sector with deep suspicion. We must, of course, manage conflicts of interest and other risks. But the reality is that we won’t end these three diseases, and others that impose huge burdens upon health around the world, without the collaboration of all partners: governments, communities, donors, and the private sector.
As a unique public-private partnership, the Global Fund has demonstrated that by working together we can save more lives and reduce infections faster. But to win the next phase of the fight against these three epidemics and more generally to accelerate progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 3, we need to follow the successful approach taken by the environment community and expand engagement of the private sector, going beyond companies directly involved in health to embrace a far broader set of private sector actors.
To step up the fight against HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, more money is needed. But we also need more innovation, more collaboration, and better execution of projects.
We need new biomedical tools to counter the threats of resistance to insecticides and antimicrobial drugs, to facilitate quick and easy diagnosis, and to make treatments more effective, safer, and easier for patients to complete. Only through working with the private sector can we create a pipeline of innovative commodities and make such products available and affordable.
Private sector expertise and infrastructure in functional areas like technology, supply chain, and financial management can make a difference. IBM, for example, has helped Global Fund partners create a paperless patient support system reaching over 1 million patients. The Coca-Cola Company and other partners are helping improve delivery of essential medical supplies to patients in remote areas. Ecobank is providing training in financial management to Global Fund partners.
The private sector’s ability to reach out to specific segments of the population is also an asset. Unilever, for example, is leveraging the power of its Dove brand to communicate with young women about how to protect themselves from HIV.
Finally, we also need private sector leadership in mobilizing financial resources. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is by far the largest of the private foundations supporting the Global Fund, and (RED) has raised more than $600 million for its fight against AIDS in Africa.
Business leaders should heed Bill Gates’ words that the foundation’s investments in global health funds (including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund; and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative) are “the best investments that Melinda and I have made in the past 20 years, and they are some of the best investments the world can make in the years ahead.” Gates said these investments have generated returns of 20 times the amount invested.
We project that every U.S. dollar invested in the Global Fund between 2021 and 2023 will have an overall return of $19, including direct productivity gains of $2. With many businesses delighted to achieve returns on equity in the teens, these returns — which equate to percentage returns measured in the hundreds and thousands — seem almost incredible. Even more important is that such investments will save millions of lives.
We face a choice. We either step up the fight against HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, or we slip back. Against such formidable adversaries, there is no middle ground. To step up the fight against these three epidemics, we need more innovation in diagnostics, prevention, treatment, and delivery models; more effective collaboration; and a relentless focus on improving how we carry out projects, using more granular and timely data. We also need more money. To make all of this happen, we need the private sector to step up, too.
It’s time for leaders in the global health community to ask themselves how to get private sector companies as engaged in the global health agenda as they are in climate change and the broader environmental agenda. We must acknowledge that so far we have failed to do this, and consider what we need to do differently.
It is possible to end the three biggest infectious disease epidemics affecting humanity and save millions of lives. We can turbocharge progress toward health and well-being for all. But to do this, we must challenge established perspectives, create new partnerships, especially with the private sector, and break down the barriers to doing more together.
Peter Sands is the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.