Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Engaging China’s Innovators as Partners in Global Health

September 24, 2012

Diagnostics can save lives and save millions of dollars in health costs. Let me give you an example. We can now treat HIV cheaply and effectively using anti-retroviral (ARV) medicines. These drugs are saving and enhancing the lives of millions of people around the world, and diagnostics play a critical role in determining whether someone is infected with the virus, whether they need to go on treatment, or whether they need to switch to more expensive second-line treatments.

Why is this information so important? One reason is that diagnostics can help health care providers focus scarce resources on those who need treatment now. While the cost of HIV treatment has declined more than 99 percent since the 1990s, funding provided through organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) still cover only half of those who could benefit from access to ARVs.

Similarly, better diagnostics are essential to improving global TB control. The recent introduction and scale up of GeneXpert – the first molecular diagnostic for TB – has dramatically improved the speed and accuracy of TB diagnosis by allowing health care workers to diagnose TB/HIV co-infection and multi-drug resistant strains of TB in less than two hours. But there is still a strong need for low-cost diagnostics that health care workers can use in rural clinics with intermittent access to electricity.

The unfortunate fact is that the current pipeline for TB diagnostics is sparse, likely because demand for them in wealthier countries – where the burden of TB disease is comparatively small – is relatively limited. Additional challenges such as specimen processing and the lack of biomarkers for latent infection have limited the number of TB diagnostics developers in Europe and North America.

This brings me to the tremendous role that China’s entrepreneurs can play as partners in global health. China is a country with a huge capacity for innovation as well as the resources required to create new products. We believe that China is uniquely positioned to develop new health technologies that can benefit people in the developing world faster and more effectively than product developers elsewhere.

With support provided by venture capital firms, government funders, private and university-based research institutions, and thousands of creative minds, China can move quickly to design products tailored to emerging markets, tap the huge growth potential of markets in developing countries, and make a positive impact on the health and well-being of millions.

To test this hypothesis, the HIV and TB teams of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will be presenting the business case for a new generation of diagnostics to Chinese researchers, product developers, and investors at the China Diagnostics Conference in Shanghai on September 25 and 26.

We will be sharing market analyses for HIV and TB diagnostics, describing the pipeline of products currently in development, identifying gaps, defining cost and performance specifications, and releasing requests for proposals to develop priority diagnostics. With markets ranging from 20-80 million HIV and TB tests per year, we believe that sustainable business models can be developed to meet these needs. 

Stay tuned to Impatient Optimists as we start to identify those talented innovators who agree to step up to the challenge.

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