U.N. officials, health industry leaders, and activists are calling for increased investment in the development of new vaccines and the tackling of a surge in tuberculosis (TB) cases exacerbated by COVID-19 and conflicts in countries such as Ukraine and Sudan.
During a high-level meeting focused on TB, which included speeches from TB sufferers and a keynote address by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the urgent need for action was emphasized. TB remains the largest infectious disease killer globally, claiming around 4,400 lives daily, including 700 children, according to Dr. Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership.
Despite global response efforts saving 74 million lives since 2000, the disease still affected over 10.5 million people in 2021, causing an estimated 6.1 million deaths and becoming the leading cause of death for individuals with HIV. Poverty, malnutrition, and HIV contribute to the spread of TB, which disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations worldwide. Mohammed stressed the importance of addressing these underlying factors.
To combat the TB epidemic effectively, the U.N. deputy secretary-general called for $22 billion to provide quality treatment to all diagnosed TB patients by 2027, along with access to healthcare and social benefits to prevent financial hardships. Additionally, $5 billion annually is needed for TB research and innovation. Developing safe and effective TB vaccines and improving access to quality tests and care are seen as crucial game-changers.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on essential health services, including TB treatment, in a video address. Conflicts in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have further hindered access to life-saving services for TB patients, reversing progress made over the past two decades in prevention, testing, and treatment.
Ghebreyesus called for the high-level meeting in September to serve as a turning point in revitalizing the fight against TB by expanding existing tools and developing new ones, such as TB vaccines. The WHO has proposed the establishment of a TB vaccine accelerator council to support the development, licensing, and use of new TB vaccines.
During the meeting, Dr. Özlem Türeci, chief medical officer of BioNTech, announced the initiation of trials for a new TB vaccine candidate. However, funding limitations have hindered progress in TB vaccine development, with only three or four vaccines reaching phase 3 trials after 19 years, compared to the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
The economic impact of COVID-19 and ongoing conflicts, particularly in Ukraine and Sudan, has severely affected efforts to treat TB patients and identify new cases. Ukraine has the highest estimated number of TB cases in Europe, with 34,000 individuals affected, including many with drug-resistant TB. In Sudan, the collapse of the healthcare system due to conflict poses a significant challenge in providing treatment and care for TB patients.
The situation in Sudan is particularly alarming, with the collapse of the health system and ongoing fighting creating a ticking time bomb for TB sufferers. Efforts are being made to track down and treat those with TB, but ensuring access to treatment remains a major concern. In 2021, 18,000 people in Sudan received treatment, according to the Stop TB Partnership.
The U.N. deputy secretary-general’s call for $22 billion to provide quality treatment to all diagnosed TB patients by 2027 and $5 billion annually for TB research and innovation is seen as a crucial step towards effectively combating the TB epidemic. The development of safe and effective TB vaccines and improving access to quality tests and care are also crucial game-changers. With conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the situation, urgent action is needed to prevent further spread of the disease and save