WHO Report Urges Developing Nations to Invest in Genetic Research on HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria TreatmentsGenetic research may lead to "major medical advances" against diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, particularly in the developing world, but disparities in access to such research could lead to a greater health divide between rich and poor nations if measures are not taken to help developing nations access the technology, according to a report released yesterday by the World Health Organization. "Genome research, if we handle it correctly, can change the world for all health care. In particular, it has the potential to allow developing countries to leapfrog decades of medical development and bring their citizens greatly improved care and modern methods in the much more immediate future," WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said. The 241-page report -- titled "Genomics and World Health" and prepared by a panel of 14 "internationally prominent" doctors, medical researchers and ethicists from both developed and developing nations -- notes that genetic research has already led to the development of many treatments, such as a DNA-based AIDS vaccine candidate that is currently being tested in Kenya and the United Kingdom, that have the potential to greatly affect lives in the developing world. However, it notes that the majority of such genetic research has been "limited ... to the rich industrial nations" because creating and utilizing genetic databases requires "major capital investment" that developing nations usually cannot afford. That gap puts developing nations "in danger of being left out of the benefits of genomic research, like they were left behind in the computer revolution of the 1980s and 90s, resulting in the so-called 'digital divide,'" Prof. Dan Brock of Brown University, one of the report's authors, explained (WHO release, 4/30).
Another Global Fund?
To help bridge the access gap between rich and poor nations, the report, which was issued on behalf of WHO's Advisory Committee on Health Research, endorses the idea of creating a $1.5 billion Global Health Research Fund from which researchers in all nations can apply for peer-reviewed grants. A similar fund has already been established by the United Nations to provide assistance for prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in the developing world, but "some funds have to go not just for existing pills, but for new products for developing countries," co-author Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, explained (Okie, Washington Post, 5/1). The report also specifically requests a second $1.5 billion grant for institutions conducting vaccine and drug development for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria (WHO release, 4/30). The report notes that developing countries "cannot rely on the largely market-driven research agenda of the developed countries" to concentrate on cures and treatments for these diseases, which disproportionately affect people in the developing world (Hilts, New York Times, 5/1).