SEATTLE — In 2006, the generosity of donors and a spirit of innovation culminated in the founding of Unitaid, an organization that has made significant headway in improving the health of the developing world. With an overarching goal of reducing poverty, Unitaid invests in medicines, diagnostic tests and other tools to alleviate the burden of tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria. The organization has achieved impressive results, from drastically reducing the price of antiretroviral treatment for HIV to advancing experimental treatments for TB.
Innovation underpins Unitaid’s investment process and also underpins the organization’s funding. Although donor contributions have supplied the organization with $3 billion in funding since its founding, its operating budget also benefits from an “airline solidarity contribution.” This ingenious funding tool is a small, domestic tax that participating countries levy on airline tickets. Spearheaded by France, the tax is now also used by the South Korea, Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire. It is this culture of forward-thinking and transnational cooperation that Unitaid has relied on as it confronts the newest global health crisis and seeks to ensure equitable access to COVID technologies.
Unitaid’s work on the COVID-19 response has focused primarily on two major COVID technologies: diagnostics and therapeutics. In the first arena, the organization has made major strides by expanding access to pulse oximetry, technology that detects when blood-oxygen levels are too low. Jannet Ginnard, Unitaid’s Director of Strategy, said in an interview with The Borgen Project that pulse oximetry is “a tremendously important diagnostic tool,” and she credits her organization’s experience in fever management for the nimble response. Unitaid, as part of its role in the ACT-A Diagnostics pillar, has supported the rapid acquisition and distribution of 120 million antigen rapid tests which cost as little as $5, can give results in 15 minutes and will be available to low- and middle-income countries. Unitaid’s work focuses on the introduction of the tests in more than 15 countries in Africa. Unitaid is also working on further strengthening the supply base for COVID-19 tests.
When it comes to therapeutics, Unitaid has also been an indispensable actor. In July, it broke ground on an initial purchase of oral and injectable dexamethasone, a low-cost steroid that tames inflammation and can save the lives of severely ill COVID-19 patients. This purchase will support 4.5 million patients in low and middle income countries, and is especially notable due to its timeliness: Unitaid partnered with UNICEF to make the purchase shortly after the WHO called for increased distribution of the drug, anticipating a spike in demand. Simultaneously, Unitaid has been investing in the search for new treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies and small molecule antivirals.
The ACT Accelerator
Unitaid’s essential work to bridge the gap between wealthy and lower-income countries’ access to COVID-19 technologies has not been an isolated effort. Rather, the organization has worked as part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a global effort by some of the world’s most influential health actors to ensure that demand for the tools necessary to fight COVID-19 is met at a worldwide scale. Along with Wellcome, another health charity that focuses on mental health, global heating and infectious diseases, Unitaid chairs the therapeutics pillar of the accelerator. However, its work on rapid testing has contributed to the diagnostics pillar, and it has also worked on the “strengthening health systems” objective, demonstrating the organizational versatility and expertise that it brings to the table.
Keeping an Eye on the Future
COVID-19 represents a monumental challenge for global health, but Unitaid illustrates the great potential of this moment as well. While working to maintain its lifesaving interventions on HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, cervical cancer and more, it has made a real impact on developing countries’ fight against the pandemic and remained true to its mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is.”
At the same time, Unitaid is preparing for the uncertain, but certainly altered, future of healthcare. Ginnard says that “This is a transformative moment for public health. I think that the importance of simpler care, accelerated access to the treatment, and a transformation in the way people engage with their care are going to be hallmarks of global health as we move forward.” This vision of a new model of healthcare is representative of the innovative outlook Unitaid brings, now and in the future, to the world’s health dilemmas.
– Jack Silvers