A few weeks ago, British researchers announced they had developed an HIV self-test that allows people to learn their HIV status with 99.7% certainty, right in the privacy of their own home. Early diagnosis would improve the efficacy of treatment and reduce unwitting transmission of the virus. The group was cautious about the potential to scale, however, because the test raises a number of thorny legal and ethical issues (which they say are based on taboos and misunderstandings). As the group works to gain approval from governments and health officials, they might look to philanthropies for funding and advocacy.
Philanthropic support for health R&D is an increasingly viable option for small companies and academic researchers working on solutions that are not readily scalable or profitable. Two recent examples: a Ugandan scientist used a $1.5 million Grand Challenges Canada grant to develop a 5-minute Ebola/Marburg’s disease test that can be easily administered at the point of care. The scientist’s effort has been hampered by a slow patent review process and a lack of government funding for research and development. Similarly, a US-based Nigerian researcher was awarded a prize by the Private-sector Health Alliance (PHN) of Nigeria for developing a urine test for malaria. Despite the “private-sector” label, the prize came with a $100,000 grant from Bill Gates, African billionaire Aliko Dangote, and former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.
Each of these stories illustrates the valuable role philanthropies can play in supporting health research. The World Economic Forum estimates that Africa produces only 1.1% of global scientific knowledge, and Africa claims only 79 scientists per million people, compared to 4,500 per million in the US. To be sure, the dearth of researchers is due largely to “brain drain,” but there is little incentive in terms of funding, facilities, and government support to stem (or reverse) the outward flow of scientists. While supporting individual research programs can have a significant impact, broader investment in state-of-the-art research centers and ongoing, locally available funding initiatives will help more African scientists understand and respond to critical health issues on their home turf.