The Global Health Research Accelerator

by Stuart Gillespie

If the global coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we’re all in this together. ‘We’re not safe until everyone’s safe’ has been the refrain from those leading the political and scientific responses – most often with reference to the ongoing effort to vaccinate the world.

But that type of rapid knowledge generation and exchange – the type that has led to the development and rollout of several new vaccines within a year – should not be taken for granted. Across much of the developing world, it’s still too difficult to carry out vital health research; too difficult to produce the insights that will not only help scientists respond quickly to the next deadly virus, but help tackle the everyday diseases that affect billions of people in less well-off countries.

Professor Trudie Lang of Oxford University leads the Global Health Network – a longstanding programme that shares tools, methods and know-how to enhance research capacity in the communities that need it. ‘Ninety per cent of health research happening around the world benefits just 10% of the global population,’ says Professor Lang. ‘We need a massive shift to make sure that health workers, laboratory and university staff in developing countries are able to carry out the same research we see in places like Oxford. Providing easy access to the right tools and knowledge will level the playing field and drive better health outcomes where evidence is currently lacking.

‘If we haven’t learned from COVID-19 how important global health research is, then I fear we never will.’

The Global Health Network’s high-quality materials on research methods have proved immensely popular over the past decade – and not just in the poorest communities. Now, a social enterprise known as the Global Health Research Accelerator (GHRA) is helping fund the network’s much-needed activities.

‘The idea behind the GHRA,’ says Professor Lang, ‘is to generate income from the organisations that can afford to pay to access our resources. That income will ensure that our training, support and guidance is available for free to those who can’t afford it – and to as many people as possible. It’s a “Robin Hood” model of operating.’

One of the network’s ambitions is to expand its use of AI and machine learning techniques to make its vast body of information discoverable and relevant to those who could benefit from it. Professor Lang says: ‘There’s such a vast amount of useful content on the network now, and I would love for us to be able to use algorithmic techniques to get the right information to researchers in, say, Peru or Nepal – information they didn’t even know existed. That’s quite challenging and expensive, but being able to apply cutting-edge digital technology to our project would be transformational in bringing about equity in who can take part in research.’

Photo by Marco Verch

The Global Health Network has had a huge impact on health outcomes and research capacity in developing countries since it was founded, translating knowledge gained from well-funded research into conditions such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s that are widespread in wealthier nations. One example that stands out in Professor Lang’s mind is addressing the issue of malnutrition in children: ‘We are working with a team that is running studies in 17 centres across Africa and Asia looking at outcomes for children who come into hospital for any reason and are found to be malnourished. When these children go home – whether they’d been treated for malaria or a road traffic accident – 60% die within the first year. What can we do to help prevent that? We want to produce straightforward recommendations that are pulled from the research findings to help nurses and health workers spot malnutrition in children and put interventions in place to reduce that mortality when they are discharged to go home.’

Working with the Latin American scientific foundation Fiocruz, meanwhile, the network has been able to transfer a successful community data-extraction and evidence-generation system across the Atlantic to Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa – particularly in relation to insect-borne diseases like Zika, yellow fever and dengue fever.

The ability to deal with everyday diseases and the ability to deal with the next major pandemic are not mutually exclusive. Professor Lang says: ‘The concept of preparing for a pandemic is a misnomer. If you don’t have the research skills embedded in communities, an emergent new disease will not be spotted until it is already a problem. Everything we’ve been doing over the past ten years is here in microcosm. If you can embed the capabilities to carry out life-changing research on the everyday diseases of poverty – diarrhoea, malnutrition, respiratory infections, malaria – that grind these communities down, then those capabilities can be immediately utilised in situ for understanding and stopping new pathogens becoming the next pandemic. If you don’t do that, you’ll be weeks or even months behind.

‘We’ve been working on this for years, fighting outbreaks of Ebola and Zika in the areas that are often hardest hit. The idea of bringing in income from the GHRA to transfer that know-how and technology into settings where it’s missing is really exciting. But we do need partners, and we do need investment, if we’re to get to that point.’

To watch the whole interview with Trudie, click below.

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