Since 1982, those engaged in the fight against tuberculosis (TB) have observed 24 March as World TB Day, to commemorate a scientific breakthrough: Dr Robert Koch’s 1882 announcement of the discovery of the bacterium that caused TB. It has provided an opportunity to reflect on progress made and call attention to the work that lies ahead.
This year is different.
COVID-19 is forcing entire countries into lock down, killing thousands of people and devastating the global economy. The virus is so easily transmitted it is possible that approximately 60% of all people in the world could become infected without radical containment measures.
Communities focused on TB, HIV, malaria, diabetes, and heart disease – to name but a few – are acutely aware of the “double impact” that COVID-19 is already having, as already-stretched resources are redeployed to fight the pandemic, leaving our most vulnerable populations fatally exposed.
There is no easy answer. But on this World TB Day, we would like to offer some thoughts based on our experiences.
First is the concept of “social distancing”. While it is imperative that we break the chain of transmission by keeping physical distance from each other, never have we all needed connection so much. One of the most wonderful things about the TB community is that it is just that – a true community – spanning advocacy, science, research and development, policy and beyond. United we will defeat COVID-19, just as united we have no doubt we will one day finally beat TB. We urge you: reach out to your neighbour, your colleague, your family. (Re)connect, offer support and accept help if you need it.
Second, the commitment to innovation for COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics is humbling, and a true global effort. But we absolutely must keep it like that: innovation from every corner of the world, for the whole world. Infectious diseases leave no room for partisan agendas, and these essential innovations must be accessible to all as global goods or we will not be victorious.
Third, this unparalleled global effort to tackle an infectious disease must leave a positive and lasting legacy. Not just of successfully overcoming COVID-19, but of stronger health systems that are able to provide health for all. This should be a legacy of true political commitment to real investment in epidemic preparedness that can improve outcomes for people with any disease.
As leaders of organizations dedicated to scientific breakthroughs for TB, we stand in solidarity and resilience in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Catharina Boehme, CEO, FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics)
Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director, Stop TB Partnership
Nick Drager, Executive Director, TBVI (Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative)
Mel Spigelman, President & CEO, TB Alliance