Last week, the Guardian’s Global Development Professional Network hosted an interactive online discussion that focused on challenges and solutions for funding drug development for diseases of poverty.

The online forum featured an expert panel of global health leaders including Sabin Vaccine Institute president Dr. Peter Hotez and representatives from Oxfam, the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, Medecins Sans Frontieres, DNDi, PATH, GSK, Medicines for Malaria Venture and more.

The panel discussed a wide-array of important topics, including the costs of drug development, diversification of funders for research and development (R&D), funding for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), cost-efficient ways of delivering medicine to those that need it the most and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.

The panelist’s remarks shed light on one unfortunate truth: It takes a lot of allocated resources and money to develop new drugs and vaccines for diseases of poverty–such as malaria, tuberculosis and NTDs.  According to an article in Forbes in 2013, developing a single drug or vaccine can cost over $350 million. The high costs of development are then reflected in the high prices on drugs and vaccines, meaning millions of people that need these essential drugs and vaccines can’t afford them.

In order to fill the demand, many drugs and vaccines are financed by international agencies and supported by charitable donations from pharmaceutical companies. The Sabin Vaccine Institute Product Development Partnership (Sabin PDP), for instance, is working with partners in the U.S. European Union, Brazil, and Gabon to develop wide a range of vaccines, including vaccines for human hookworm, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and schistosomiasis, among others.

However, the rising cost for drug and vaccine development for diseases of poverty is forcing global health organizations to search for new sources of funding and alternative ways to reduce the cost of R&D.

The panel offered some promising suggestions on how we can generate additional funding and also reduce the cost for drug development for diseases of poverty.

Dr. Hotez stressed the need for non-US and UK countries, including the G20, to play a larger role in supporting R&D for NTDs:

“90% of R&D funding is from US and UK governments and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But we found many of the NTDs are concentrated in places like India, Brazil, Indonesia and China, especially among the extreme poor living there,” Peter stated.

Jon Pender, Vice President of Intellectual Property and Access at GSK, agreed with Dr. Hotez’s call for increased R&D support from G20 countries as noted just how much support stems from US and UK partners: “The latest G-Finder report shows that the US National Institute of Health provided 40.4% of all funding and the pharmaceutical industry was second with 16.7%, followed by the Gates Foundation at 14%. The next highest funder was the Wellcome Trust at 4.7%,”

Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni of Oxfam proposed the idea of a global treaty for financing R&D whereby all countries contribute a percentage of their GDP and therefore have a stake in deciding priorities. 

Rachel Cohen of DNDi voiced support for a global R&D treaty as well. But such funding, she notes, “would also need to adhere to certain principles to ensure that product prices are disconnected from the cost of R&D -- this would guarantee affordability for patients.”

In addition, Walter Moos, President of SRI Biosciences proposed looking for new uses for existing drugs to reduce costs: “Drug repurposing is catching on in some companies, though not necessarily in this space,”

Commenting on this point, Alan Fairlamb from the University of Dundee noted that drug repurposing has proved to be most successful in human helminth infections.

Emphasizing the role of developing countries in drug development and manufacturing, Dr. Hotez stated, “our future is very much tied to the success of developing country vaccine manufacturers: Brazil, Mexico, Cuba in the West; India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam in Asia; Possibly Iran in the Middle East. We still have minimal to zero vaccine manufacturing capabilities in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The two-hour discussion brought forth several different perspectives and solutions to funding drug development for diseases of poverty. Click here to read the full discussion in the comments section.