Innovation.

To healthcare communicators and pharma industry veterans it had felt a bit like a dirty word. Overused in promotion and under met with tangible results, the buzzword of innovation seemed to be losing its sparkle.

But hearing it used so much by clients, stakeholders and partners over the past 2-3 years got me thinking – could innovation (true and urgent cross-sector partnership-led innovation) really be the key to tackling the world’s major global health pandemics?

Take tuberculosis for example. If you live in the Western world, chances are you’ve never thought twice about this disease – or had cause to.

But for the 10 million people who became ill with tuberculosis in 2017, it’s something that has affected their lungs and lives in a big way.

It’s a disease that’s both curable AND preventable, yet it still kills 1.6 million people around the world each year.

This insidious disease wreaks havoc with your lungs, immune system and even kidney, spine and brain. Treating it fully is a lengthy process that can take up to two years.

A person being treated for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) typically swallows up to 14,600 pills and can endure up to 400 painful injections. Even still, the chance of being cured is only 50%.

Some currently available treatments are accompanied by side effects such as deafness, so even if you are cured, your life (and job and livelihood) may be irrevocably impacted.

Why isn’t the rest of the world paying attention?

With current levels of political support, financing and innovations available, we will not meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of ending TB by 2030.

Forecasts instead estimate an end to the disease in 2180 – that’s 150 years and an estimated 255 million lives behind schedule.

Edelman recently helped Stop TB, Johnson & Johnson, World Economic Forum, the UN Foundation and Global Fund host the TB Innovation Summit in New York ahead of the first UN High-Level Meeting on the issue.

According to Johnson and Johnson’s chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels, “TB represents one of the greatest public health emergencies today, and we need to start treating it like one.”

But back to the “i” word

We have never been better placed to tackle this disease than we are right now.

We have the first new medicines for TB available in over 40 years and diagnostic tools to identify antibiotic sensitivity faster than ever before. We have the science and a path forward outlined to make a real difference for these patients.

Simply put, the global health leadership community agreed three types of innovation are needed:

  • Greater global and domestic political leadership and financingto reach all people affected by TB with prevention, treatment, prevention and care.
  • Sustained and continuous investment in research and development (R&D)to accelerate the development of new tools and technologies.
  • Out-of-the-box collaborations between all sectorsto accelerate the delivery of both current and future solutions to tackle both TB and DR-TB.

WEF’s head of Global Health and Healthcare Initiative Vanessa Candeias was asked “Why now?”

She answered simply, “becausethe patients need us now.”

Innovate or bust

At the Summit, the excitement in the room was palpable when we heard how scientists at IMTECH are being supported by the private sector to develop more effective, safe, all-oral treatment regimens to tackle multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) and new molecular entities to treat all TB patients.

There was a buzz when Laura Mendoza, founder of Unima, talked about the low-cost diagnostic tool she is working to develop that would help detect TB within 15 minutes and allow for patients to begin treatment faster than ever before.

And applause rang out when TB survivor Tamaryn Green, Miss South Africa 2018, launched the TB Innovation Charter signed by individuals and organisations committing to come together to end this global scourge.

It was as if the people in the room could feel a shift in the way forward. Partners from public, private and civil society sectors looked at each other with renewed vigour and openness.

Science and innovation necessarily go hand in hand. Combatting tuberculosis and MDR-TB needs to be a top global public health priority and we are poised to innovate our way to a solution.

We know all the terrifying statistics and it’s time to do something about it.

In the words of Madhukar Pai, director of McGill Global Health Programs, “We need to science the sh*t out of TB” – and innovation is key.

You can view a recorded webcast of the TB Innovation Summit here.

Ishtar Schneider is an Account Director at Edelman UK Health