We won’t reach global goals without new health technologies

Closeup of hands filling a syring with vaccine.
With the right global health tools, the world can achieve the SDGs. Photo: World Health Organization.

With global leaders poised to approve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) later this month, the big question now is whether we can actually achieve them. Although the countdown clock to meeting the SDGs won’t start ticking until 2016, one thing is already clear: we won’t reach those global goals unless we succeed in developing new and improved health technologies and mobilizing increased investment in research and development (R&D).

The vital role of R&D

There is no doubt the world has achieved enormous gains in health over the past few years. Since 1990, we’ve halved child deaths, reduced maternal deaths by 45 percent, and achieved significant progress in fighting leading killers like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria.

Yet significant health challenges continue to weigh on the global economy and stand as barriers to poverty reduction and economic prosperity—particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where the health burden is most severe. Without addressing these challenges, we won’t achieve the overarching goals of poverty reduction and economic prosperity envisioned in the SDGs.

Recognizing the link between health and economic prosperity, global leaders included within the SDGs ambitious targets for reducing maternal and child mortality; ending the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, and neglected tropical diseases; and addressing other health challenges.

The problem? We can’t reach those targets using today’s health tools. Global strategies targeting the elimination of major diseases clearly acknowledge this reality. For example, ending TB by 2030 will require new, effective drugs to treat the growing problem of multidrug-resistant TB. Likewise, without new tools to treat and prevent HIV transmission, the scale-up of existing tools will prove insufficient to achieve the end of HIV/AIDS by 2030 as envisioned in the SDGs.

Recognizing the need, measuring our progress

Despite the importance of global health R&D to achieving the SDGs, it’s largely missing from the current agenda. Only one of the 169 proposed targets—target 3.b—is specifically aimed at advancing R&D to meet the health needs of LMICs.

That target excludes several important categories of health interventions, including diagnostics, microbicides, devices, and other health tools. It also conflates two distinct problems—the need to support R&D to develop new tools and the need for those new tools to be affordable and accessible. Furthermore, none of the UN proposals for the SDG monitoring framework include indicators that can adequately measure progress on global health R&D.

Delivering the next generation of lifesaving health technologies will require strong political commitment and the mobilization of resources from all nations to accelerate health innovation. To make that happen, it’s critical that the SDGs explicitly acknowledge the importance of global health R&D and measure progress toward it.

Incorporating global health R&D into the monitoring framework

While the SDG goals and targets are set, the indicators will not be finalized until later next year. Given the marginalization of R&D in the goals and targets, it will be vital that effective indicators to measure global health R&D are included in the SDG monitoring framework.

A new report from the Global Health Technologies Coalition, PATH, and other leading nongovernmental organizations is calling on the United Nations leadership and its member states to do just that. The report recommends a short list of the most suitable global health R&D indicators for inclusion in the global and national monitoring frameworks.

The adoption of these indicators will help the global community monitor progress on advancing global health R&D, while creating little to no additional burden on statistical offices responsible for doing the tracking. A win-win all around.

With the right health tools, the world can achieve the SDGs. But to develop and deliver those tools, we need to mobilize greater resources and political commitment to support health R&D and put in place mechanisms to hold us accountable for making it happen. The SDGs present an opportunity to transform the future of global health through innovation. Will we grasp it?