- The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the number of people being diagnosed with TB, making the 2030 UN goal to eliminate it even harder.
- In response, a number of public-private sector initiatives are committed to pooling their expertise, and the latest technology, to reach these people.
At first glance, the numbers look promising. Nine countries accounting for over half of the global tuberculosis (TB) burden reported large drops in the number of people diagnosed with TB over the course of 2020. Perhaps, after millennia, the tide was turning on TB – a deadly, contagious and airborne respiratory ailment that, until the emergence of COVID-19, claimed more lives each year than any other infectious disease.
Unfortunately, these statistics do not tell the full story. The number of people being diagnosed with TB is decreasing, not because the world is defeating this epidemic, but because efforts to diagnose TB have been disrupted due to health systems and services being overburdened by COVID-19. As a result, 12 years of progress against TB have been lost over these last 12 months of the pandemic. If people living with TB are not identified and diagnosed, they cannot be treated, with tragic consequences for themselves, their families and communities.
Getting the world back on track toward ending TB by 2030 – the objective declared in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – begins with finding the “missing millions” of people living with the disease. Largely, these are members of underserved and vulnerable communities, and reaching them requires innovation and collaboration across sectors. The good news is that many efforts are underway.
COVID-19 has forced a reimagining of how to deliver care to vulnerable populations, with long-term implications for the fight against TB. In 2020, the Drug-Resistant TB (DR-TB) Lifeline QuickFire Challenge recognized five innovative solutions, selected from more than 100 applications worldwide, aimed at improving the experiences of people living with TB, especially during COVID-19.
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These tech-driven, user-friendly solutions, developed by teams ranging from Ukraine to India to the Philippines, connect TB patients with valuable resources, promote treatment adherence and help them obtain medication. They are now being scaled with the help of grants and guidance from experts across Johnson & Johnson to impact more people, illustrating how the current moment provides an opportunity to rethink TB care.
The ongoing innovation in TB services is not limited to tech-entrepreneurs. New collaborations, like Project inSight, are leveraging the unique strengths of the private sector and not-for-profits. Project inSight aims to find undiagnosed TB patients in Indonesia and the Philippines using the reach of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (the Global Fund) and Johnson & Johnson’s expertise in consumer behaviour and human-centric design to identify, engage and support people living with DR-TB.
Private sector is stepping up
The Ending Workplace TB initiative – launched in 2020 by the World Economic Forum, the Stop TB Partnership, the Global Fund, Johnson & Johnson, and others – leverages the potential of businesses worldwide to implement TB awareness, detection and treatment programmes reaching workers, their families and communities.
The programme is growing as more companies recognize their vested interests in tackling serious health challenges and sign up: Cepheid, Freeport-McMoRan, Fullerton Health, Otsuka, PerkinElmer, Qiagen, Royal Philips, Société Générale, and suppliers including Covance by Labcorp, IQVIA, PRA Health Sciences, Recipharm, and VVF Ltd. South Africa. Together, these companies are redefining the frontlines of public health, understanding that protecting the health and safety of our communities happens not only in hospitals and clinics, but also in offices and factories.
Fueling global action through programmes like these is essential to ending TB. It is incumbent on all of us, across the entire global health and international community, to ensure that progress against TB is not lost, and that we harness our collective resources and ingenuity to achieve a TB-free world by 2030.