In an interconnected world, with pandemic or climate change, development funding must also go to research.
After an incredibly difficult year, it is understandable that many people are looking forward to a ‘post-COVID’ era. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, we need to shift our thinking to start to see ourselves as societies living with this virus and focus on the long-term planning needed to tackle the enormous challenges ahead.
Epidemics, much like threats such as climate change and cyber-crime, do not respect national borders and we cannot build walls to keep them out. Science and innovation have a key role to play, not only in finding safe and effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, but also in addressing the complex wider issues facing our societies and economies, including the health toll of the COVID-19 response.
Science, innovation and research
Global problems require coordinated international solutions.
In recent decades, we have made remarkable advances in global health and wellbeing and lifted millions of people out of poverty. This progress has been due in large part to science, innovation and research and the UK has played a leading role.
Transformative interdisciplinary research
From advances in agriculture to the global spread of the internet, mobile and satellite connectivity, the UK has contributed significantly through transformative interdisciplinary research.
The UK has worked collaboratively with international partners to connect the strength of UK research with institutions and networks in low- and middle-income countries. This was particularly evident in the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
A global response to COVID-19
Equity and access to healthcare for the world’s most vulnerable people are at the foundation of this research.
Right now, UK-funded research and innovation, closely coordinated across diverse government departments, is playing a key role in the global response to COVID-19. As well as developing new vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, this funding is supporting health systems, hygiene, water and sanitation, food security, logistics and supply chains. It is helping ensure gender inclusion and equality, promoting education and combating misinformation.
COVID-19 vaccine development
The UK’s leadership in COVID-19 vaccine development is well-known. Two of the most promising vaccine candidates globally, the Oxford and Imperial vaccines, have received funding from the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce and benefit from support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
These were originally supported to develop vaccines against diseases with epidemic potential in low- and middle-income countries, with Official Development Assistance funding through the UK Vaccine Network. Both projects are exploring opportunities for trials in developing countries alongside the UK, which represents a continued commitment to equity and access by the institutions and their funders.
However, the health response to COVID-19 goes much wider than vaccines.
For example, a team from the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Respiratory Health (RESPIRE) at the University of Edinburgh is focusing on priorities identified by the World Health Organization (WHO). In Malaysia, and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, they are working to address health, safety and psychological issues faced by frontline care workers. Together with partners in Pakistan, they are using artificial intelligence to detect COVID-19 in chest X-rays up to 200 times faster than manual image processing.
A network of innovators
The COVIDaction programme has been building an innovation and technology pipeline for the international pandemic response and long-term recovery. It has already developed a large network of innovators working on data, resilient health systems, local production and local solutions.
Similarly, UK funding is supporting entrepreneurs and engineers, such as Catherine Wanjoya in Kenya, who is designing incinerators to safely dispose of used personal protective equipment on-site in hospitals, and Chinenye Nwaogwugwu in Nigeria, who manufactures hand sanitiser that meets WHO standards.
Strong international partnerships
Crucially, this approach is founded on strong international partnerships and networks of researchers, practitioners, funders and policymakers, characterised by mutual respect and trust. This enables the UK to respond to emergencies, such as COVID-19, in agile ways through an evolving ecosystem of established networks, working with community teams on the ground. Much of this work uses innovative digital and mobile technology and geo-data.
The UK’s strong commitment to development through research and innovation has mutual benefits for both the UK and the world. Many of the innovations developed to solve unmet needs in low-income settings bring enterprising solutions back to the UK and other high-income countries.
The need for mutual learning
The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has exposed the need for mutual learning and international partnerships on a larger scale.
As a global community, no country is safe until every country is safe. We have to take a long-term view to sustain the hard-won gains in global health and development.
International development research
The merger on 1 September of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is an opportunity for the UK to have even greater impact and influence.
By making a resolute commitment to international development research, the UK will maintain its standing as a global leader. It will be able to make vital contributions to solving the challenges that will surely arise in the future, while at the same time safeguarding our national security and bringing essential knowledge and benefits back to the UK.
Ultimately, research and innovation enable us to foster sustainable solutions that benefit everyone, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, never has that been more needed than it is today.
Peter Piotr, independent chair of the UK government’s Strategic Coherence of ODA-funded Research Board
This article has first been published by SciDev.Net.