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Global health: 4 reasons to be optimistic despite current challenges

global health public-private collaboration pandemic

Progress on global health requires public-private collaboration. Image: Pexels.

Kelly McCain
Head, Healthcare Initiatives, World Economic Forum Geneva
Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Global Health

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Pandemics, environmental factors, and geopolitical tensions are all affecting progress on global health.
  • Despite these challenges, groundbreaking scientific and medical advances are curing diseases and developing breakthrough diagnostics, treatments and therapies.
  • Public-private partnerships are key to building new, sustainable systems that underpin the future of global health.

A quick glance at the headlines does not suggest that now is the time for optimism around global health. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact hundreds of millions of people around the world, routine healthcare services and immunization campaigns are struggling to catch-up with the pandemic backlog, and there are even fears that the millions of people displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could drive increases in rates of diseases such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB) in Europe.

Future of global health: there's much to be optimistic about

These new challenges will not abate on their own, nor are they the only issues facing global health: COVID-19 variants, novel pathogens driven by climate change, rising rates of previously controlled infections, and increasing global mobility could all give rise to a new pandemic.

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Against this backdrop, leaders from the public and private sector will meet at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. High on the agenda will be the need to drive a rapid acceleration in scientific and medical breakthroughs through a renewed focus in public-private partnerships as a driver for building new, sustainable systems in and out of health and healthcare.

The good news is that we are already seeing signs of progress. Between 2011-2020, the US FDA alone approved an average of 41 new molecular entities to be used in the development of treatments – nearly double the number in the previous decade. Furthermore, over the same period we also saw groundbreaking advances, including cures for previously chronic diseases and the emergence of new classes of therapeutics and vaccines.

Against this fast-moving backdrop, the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare have found four reasons for optimism, fueled by collaborations in the global health space, pulling through lessons learned over the last two years in discovering and delivering medical breakthroughs to the market:

1. Global health as a global priority

The pandemic has transformed the way that individuals, companies, and governments think about health, and particularly public health. Companies from outside the health sector – those who have no commercial interest in selling health related services and products – recognize more than ever that health is critical to their economic performance. That brings new thinking and new expertise into the health space. We’re also seeing new interest in the way that investors think about the role of companies in relation to health disparities, such as through the Global Health Equity Network.

2. New structures and systems

From the UK’s RECOVERY COVID-19 clinical trials programme, to the partnership between Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation and Open Philanthropies in the Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD) programme, the effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has proved that new models of development are possible. To promote equitable vaccine access, new vaccine manufacturing sites are being built in Africa and other regions that don’t currently have such capacity. We’re also seeing a concentrated push for new financial models to accelerate drug development where market incentives have failed, such as for new antibiotics.


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3. Harnessing artificial intelligence

For years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been touted as an accelerator for innovations in health, yet practical applications were sparse. This is now rapidly changing: startling breakthroughs in protein analysis, drug discovery , AI-assisted X-ray, and AI-enabled chatbots to tackle infectious diseases like TB, are bringing new technology to bear in different ways. Much of the opportunities for AI to revolutionize healthcare still lie ahead.

A critical component for instilling trust and successfully leveraging AI in the health space will be new frameworks for governance. Here, we also see progress, such as the partnership between the Forum and the government of Rwanda.

4. Managing data

Just as with AI, there has been a lot of hype around “big data”, and progress has been striking. Beyond the RECOVERY trial mentioned above, efforts to use shared data from wearable devices to identify early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease are streamlining efforts to combat a growing global issue. We have also seen registries of health outcomes, such as those for certain eye operations in Europe start to drive major improvements in value in healthcare and novel approaches to sharing critical genomic data for pathogens. Such work is being complemented by ambitious goals to expand pathogen surveillance systems for pandemic prevention as well as everyday public health decision-making.

Public-private partnerships that build trust

Of course, all these advances rely on the right supporting systems being in place, particularly governance and privacy frameworks when it comes to personal data and the way that it is processed. As COVID-19 has shown, when people don’t trust systems, such as those relating to vaccine development or deployment, confidence can suffer with serious consequences for public health. Public and private stakeholders must work together to ensure that sustainable, robust structures are in place to underpin progress.

With an unparalleled focus on health from all stakeholders, new structures and systems, and AI and big data beginning to demonstrate their full impact, there is much to be optimistic about for the future of global health, all of which hold and require opportunities for public-private collaboration.

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