Decades of research must be translated into better health for all

We have entered the Nobel week and even if the pandemic has forced us to forgo most of the celebratory events the core remains: it is a week of pride and reflection on what science has achieved. We honor researchers whose discoveries – in the words of Alfred Nobel – “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. And we look back on generations of scientists whose work has taken us to where we are today. Once again we are confirmed in our conviction that scientific progress is key to societal development.  

But let us pause with Nobel’s words: “the greatest benefit to humankind”. Do advances in science translate into better health for all? The current pandemic has made it all to clear that this is not the case. The current health crisis has not only unveiled extant inequities in health but has deepened them to such an extent that they cannot any longer be ignored. This year our pride and celebration should be tempered by the fact that scientific progress does not reach out to humankind at large. Many are left behind. The current vaccine inequity is a case in point and is the topic of our article published today in the WHO Bulletin.

Imports 99%

As of 1 November 2021 fewer than 35 million of over 7 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in low-income countries. In our article we also point out that Africa currently imports 99% of its vaccines and that there is an urgent need to make vaccine technologies a global common good. Unfolding before us in real time we have witnessed how international solidarity has fallen short of ensuring equal access to vaccines.  Decades of research have not been translated into better health for all.  

Close the gap

Through international collaboration and capacity building we as researchers can help close the technology gap that so blatantly stands in the way for implementation of scientific progress. But we cannot do this alone. We have to build new alliances – with the private sector, with the health care system, with political decision makers, with the entire range of non-governmental organizations – so that we can inspire a global transformation for health. This is what is needed – nothing less.

This is what we write in our article:

The rapid development and production of COVID-19 vaccines is a great achievement for the pharmaceutical industry. Yet it is a success based on decades of government-funded research conducted primarily at universities. It is unacceptable that the benefits of public investments in scientific progress have been so unevenly distributed globally. As researchers, we have a responsibility to be stewards of this legacy of research, to apply systems thinking across the vaccine value chain and be neutral brokers between multiple actors. In global expert panels, we should argue for sustainable knowledge transfer and long-term investments into local research and development and higher education, and create good examples of true academic partnerships between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries.

Echoes Nobel

In many ways KI’s vision echoes Alfred Nobel’s reference to “humankind”: “We are advancing knowledge about life and strive towards better health for all.” When we reflect on our scientific achievements this Nobel week we should do this with pride and delight but also with due attention to one of the major challenges ahead: that decades of research must be translated into better health for all.

More on this topic in our article in Nature Medicine (March 2021).

And don’t forget the Nobel Lectures in Physiology or Medicine 2021 this afternoon, starts at 2 pm! More information here.


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