Recently, Mel Spigelman, President of the Tuberculosis Alliance, spoke on AFP and praised the rapid and impressive progress in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. In record time, just two years, a range of safe and effective vaccines, tests and treatments have been developed.
But it was also when the world saw the return of tuberculosis – the world’s deadliest infectious disease.
The world cares about Covid-19, but forgets the potential danger
According to the annual death rate reported by the Tuberculosis Alliance, TB can kill more than 4,100 people a day, four times more than the current 1,400 deaths from Covid-19 (figures in 28 last date from Johns Hopkins University). As the number of deaths from Covid-19 is gradually decreasing worldwide, TB poses a major health risk.
However, unlike Covid-19, the world is still interested, although the trend has gradually cooled, even weakened. In contrast, TB treatment has become a huge gap in the medical industry.
As can be seen, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on efforts to fight tuberculosis. Many TB treatment hospitals have advanced to care for people with Covid-19. The closure of some facilities makes it impossible for patients to access necessary medical services. As a result, the number of TB deaths in 2020 has risen for the first time in a decade.
“We’ve gone from a very slow progress to a regression,” said Dr. Spigelman.
Billions of dollars are being invested in the fight against Covid-19. However, the global economic crisis and mounting geopolitical tensions have made donors to the fight against tuberculosis tighten their spending. Most units that support the Lao Coalition cannot commit to financing for more than a year, they always cut the amount offered. Even well-known donors from the UK said no to the disease this year.
“I am very concerned that the progress that has been made, which has been eroded by Covid-19, will be eroded even further,” said Mr Spigelman.
The disease of the poor
The death rate from TB is rising as the world faces a revolution in drug-resistant TB treatment.
About 5% of the 9.5 million people who get tuberculosis every year do not respond to commonly prescribed antibiotics. This makes treatment very difficult.
Patients are forced to take 5-8 pills per day. They also usually require daily injections, which last up to 2 years. Accompanied by terrible side effects, the cure rate is only about 20-30%.
The world urgently needs resources to deploy the new regimen to the patients who need it. But in tuberculosis, resources are always scarce.
Mr. Spigelman attributed the lack of urgency to the eradication of TB because it was seen as a “poor man’s disease”. “If wealthy people around the world got TB, I think we would see a very different response,” he said.
Currently, tuberculosis vaccine candidates are phasing out. The projects do not have the money for further development and there is no attempt to launch trials as easily as a Covid-19 vaccine.
That’s why, warned Mr Spigelman, the scenario that should have happened is very far off: if the resources poured into Covid-19 are properly invested in tuberculosis, the disease can be completely eradicated.
“If there are enough resources, I bet it can be destroyed,” he insisted.
On the WHO side, the organization believes that the massive investment in COVID-19 research, which provides safe and effective vaccines and treatments, could provide an inspiration in the fight against TB. Therefore, the organization emphasizes the urgent need for investment to develop and expand access to services, as well as innovative new tools to prevent, detect and treat TB, especially TB cells developing new vaccines against tuberculosis. According to the WHO, this could save millions of lives every year, reduce inequalities and significantly reduce economic damage.
Tereza Kasaeva, director of the WHO Global Tuberculosis Program, said the BCG vaccine against TB is centuries old. A new vaccine will therefore play an important role. There are currently nine potential vaccines under research and development, and another mRNA vaccine is in development.
Ms Kasaeva added that there is growing interest in developing a TB vaccine, and if the investment is correct and timely, it is likely that at least one vaccine will be available before 2025. She also stressed that the world currently needs about USD 1.1 billion more for research and development of methods for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tuberculosis.