Investing in innovation to beat the mosquito

Investing in innovation to beat the mosquito
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A genetically modified fungus weaponized with spider venom; using mobile phone data to track infectious disease spread; a drug that turns human beings into living “mosquito zappers.” What do these things have in common? They’re not rejected ideas for a sci-fi plot, but real-world projects that innovators are developing today to combat mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria. 

Since the year 2000, behind U.S. leadership, the global fight against malaria has emerged as one of humanity’s great public health success stories. Through scaling up proven, cost-effective tools like lifesaving bed nets, antimalarial drugs and rapid diagnostic tests, we are saving 500,000 lives every year. Today, a child under 5 has a far greater chance of surviving this deadly disease than ever before. 

This progress has been achieved despite a formidable enemy — the malaria parasite and mosquito vector, which are evolving to resist drugs and insecticides across parts of Africa and Asia. After two decades of progress, malaria cases are rising in some of the hardest-hit countries. 

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The fight to defeat malaria is entering a critical new phase, one that requires continued U.S. leadership and commitment. Any reduction in malaria programming or global health funding could have devastating effects on the malaria fight. Congress should reject any attempt by the Administration to curtail our leadership in the face of global health threats. 

If anything, now is the time to double down on our efforts. Between 2000 and 2015, malaria deaths plunged more than 60 percent and cases dropped 37 percent. Overall, thanks in large part to U.S. investments, we’ve saved seven million lives from malaria and prevented more than one billion cases, unlocking $2 trillion in economic benefits in the developing world. Yet the incredible rate of progress we’ve achieved to-date is stagnating. 

To win the fight against malaria, we must innovate — including getting smarter about how we deploy effective current and new tools — to have greater impact. Take the bed net for example. U.S.-led efforts to scale access to bed nets since 2000 have protected hundreds of millions of African families from malaria infection. Now, in the face of widespread insecticide resistance, we need to reinvent the bed net and where we target it. 

The U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is leading the way. PMI protects more than 570 million people at risk of malaria across 24 countries in Africa and 3 countries in the Greater Mekong Region of Southeast Asia. 

Now, PMI is partnering with countries toward the goal of generating real-time data that can be used to monitor emerging challenges like insecticide resistance and to target the right mix of tools, such as next-generation nets, to the places where they’re needed most. This is one example of how innovation can help wring the greatest efficiency and effectiveness from life-saving U.S. investments. 

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We need to stay ahead of resistance by investing in R&D to develop new insecticides, next-generation bed nets, more powerful drugs, and new strategies that include using DNA samples to track and stop resistance. No single innovation will be enough, but taken together, they amount to a new model for disease eradication.

Many parts of the U.S. government have vital roles to play in this innovation. Work that began in the 1980s by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research led to approvals last year of a new “radical cure” for the second deadliest form of malaria, and to the rollout this year of the first partially effective malaria vaccine in three African countries. 

The United States also invests in new tools and research to help end malaria deaths through the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health — the world’s largest funder of malaria R&D

The world is counting on continued American leadership and generosity to keep us ahead of the mosquito and the parasite it carries. As the fiscal 2020 budget makes its way through the appropriations process, we call on Congress to step up the fight by increasing funding for the President’s Malaria Initiative to buy next-generation bed nets that are needed to beat insecticide resistance in Africa and to appropriate the full amount needed to ensure the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will be able to save another 16 million lives over the next 3 years.

We’re trying to end a 20-million-year-old disease in the next 20 years or so. That’s why we talk about the malaria campaign in terms of “scope” and “hope.” The scope of the challenge to end malaria in our lifetime is enormous, yet it is achievable. With U.S. leadership and innovation, we can finish the job by ending one of humanity’s oldest, deadliest diseases forever.

Martin Edlund is a founding member and CEO of Malaria No More, a non-profit advocacy organization that envisions a world where no one dies from a mosquito bite and is working toward ending malaria within a generation.