16 Feb 2017   |   News

Gates to Europe: Prioritise health research for poor countries in the next Framework Programme

Billionaire philanthropist pitches for sustained EU research support in developing world, amidst fears that UK and US governments may dramatically scale back

Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates urged the EU to make healthcare research for the developing world a priority for its next big R&D plan, Framework Programme 9.

“The European Commission and European governments are critical public funders of global health R&D. I hope that the Commission will prioritise global health research and development for the developing world as it starts to plan for its new research framework and funding,” Gates told a conference audience in Brussels 16 February.

Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds global health and development issues, met with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas to press the need for continued spending into disease R&D, and spoke alongside him at a conference on world health research.

Horizon 2020, the research programme Moedas oversees, has earmarked millions of euros in funding for new diagnostics and experimental vaccine candidates for the Ebola and Zika viruses in the last three years. It has also recently funded, together with the Gates Foundation, a competition for news ideas to prevent death and complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

Learning from Ebola

Plans for Horizon 2020’s successor, provisionally titled Framework Programme 9 and set to run from 2021- 2028, are already being formed in Brussels. Moedas confirmed he wanted to make some changes to the next programme, so as to allow more research money to flow to health emergencies.

“I want us to learn from Ebola,” Moedas said. “I want us to build more flexibility into our next work programme, FP9. More flexibility to deploy our budget where it needs to be.”

The EU has become the second-largest funder in the world for research into so-called “neglected diseases”, according to a report published today by Policy Cures Research, a research body. The term refers to HIV/AIDs, malaria, tuberculosis and other ailments that, while global, disproportionately affect people in developing countries.

Support for this type of research funding from Brussels increased 20 per cent year-on-year since 2008, totalling $125 million in 2015.

The investment boost bucks the global trend, with both the US and the UK, the other big global aid investors, reducing their contributions for disease research in 2015.

Earlier this week, Gates, the world's richest man, signaled that new inward-looking administrations in the US and Britain made the case for continued research and development funding in poorer countries more complicated.

His foundation's widely-read annual letter for 2017, published Tuesday, lays out its funding concerns “amid dramatic political transitions…including new leadership in the United States and the United Kingdom”.

In his speech today, Moedas picked up on the theme, with an apparent reference to rising nationalist voices heard all around Europe and in the US right now.

It is “a pivotal moment for global health R&I”, the Portuguese Commissioner said. “Every day we hear fiery arguments why we should not share. Why we should not work to improve the lives of the many, but only the lives of "our own". Being short-sighted and selfish, turning our backs to the world doesn't work.”

Receding US leadership

The US still remains the world’s largest public funder of global health research into neglected diseases, accounting for two-thirds of overall spend, but its investment has fallen in every year but one since 2009.

Today it is spending a quarter of a billion dollars less than it did in 2012, and 2015 saw the lowest level of US government funding in this area on record.

Asked at a press event this morning if he expected the US to continue paring back its foreign aid expenditure under President Trump – as analysts say is likely – Gates demurred.

“I don’t have a prediction,” he said. “But this is a very important time to make the case and encourage countries to be generous. Foreign aid always has the particular challenge so that, even when it is doing miraculous things, it’s far away from people. Telling [them] the good news is always a big challenge.”

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