A group of tuberculosis survivors are calling for more funding and action to find new vaccines, after the numbers dying of the infection rose for the first time in 10 years.
In 2020, 1.5 million were killed by TB and 10 million infected, according to the World Health Organization. Campaigners want world leaders to invest $1bn (£730m) every year into vaccine research, spurred on by the momentum from the Covid jab development.
The TB Vaccine Advocacy Roadmap group, a new coalition of organisations, said G20 finance leaders meeting at the end of October need to increase funding almost tenfold, as it has never exceeded more than $120m (£87m) in a year.
In an open letter, TB survivors from all the G20 countries said it was time to reverse decades of underinvestment in the “disease of injustice”.
“We are losing people at every step of care. TB diagnostics and therapeutics fall far short of what people with TB need. This is only worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. With only a handful of new TB drugs developed in the past 50 years, treatment still takes months or years, with many debilitating and deadly side-effects,” the letter states.
It said there are six promising candidates for TB vaccines, but they required more funding to prevent further delay.
Uvistra Naidoo, a South African TB survivor and signatory of the letter, said: “We all know that vaccines are needed to eliminate a global epidemic, and TB is no exception. We also know it is possible – the lightning-quick development of Covid-19 vaccines shows that if there is political will, there are resources to make it happen.”.
Mike Frick, co-director of the TB project at Treatment Action Group, said: “Governments cumulatively spent $104bn on research and development of Covid-19 vaccine and therapeutics in the first 11 months of the pandemic. That is 75 times more than the money governments and other funders spent on TB vaccine research over the 11 years from 2005 to 2019.
“This disparity signals a clear abdication of responsibility on the part of governments to protect the human rights of people with TB to health and scientific progress. It is past time that we as a TB community start expecting – and demanding – more.”
Earlier this month, the WHO warned that the pandemic had reversed progress against TB and fewer people were being diagnosed and treated as resources went to tackling Covid-19. Global funding for TB fell by £500m from 2019 to 2020.
Around the world, fewer infections were diagnosed and reported; a drop from 7.1m in 2019 to 5.8m in 2020. India made up 40% of this global drop in notifications, while numbers were down 14% in Indonesia and 12% in the Philippines. The number of people given preventive treatment fell by a fifth.
WHO said it believes 4.1 million people newly infected with TB in 2020 have not been diagnosed, compared with 2.9 million the year before.
Early diagnosis of TB is crucial because undetected cases increase the risk of the disease spreading. A person can be infected by inhaling a small number of bacteria that can take years to become active. The WHO estimates that around a quarter of the world’s population has latent TB.
Despite the high mortality rates, the only existing vaccine is the 100-year-old BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccine, which is less effective for adults and older teenagers.
Kundai Chinyenze, executive medical director at the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, said: “We have promising vaccine candidates and we know how to move them forward. Late-stage vaccine research is expensive, but in fact, it is only a tiny fraction of the tremendous human and economic cost of the TB epidemic. After Covid, everybody understands better than ever that investing in vaccines is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”