COVID-19 & TB: Response to new report from Stop TB Partnership

I applaud the Stop TB Partnership on the publication of a new report released in collaboration with Imperial College London, Avenir Health and Johns Hopkins University, supported by USAID, highlighting the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health services for tuberculosis (TB), the world’s leading infectious disease killer. Frankly, it makes for a chilling read. But a vital one.

COVID-19 will change the future, but for TB it is taking us back to the past. Global TB incidence could increase to levels we left behind in 2013. Deaths in 2021 are on track to increase to numbers we saw in 2016. This would be nothing short of a tragedy.

While we know that modeling studies have limitations, and some may be inclined to dismiss these numbers or them play down, this report certainly gives us a wake up call – as well as a golden opportunity to take action, now, while we still have the chance to course correct and save millions of lives.

Much is currently being made about reallocation of already-sparse global health resources to help combat COVID-19. The pandemic response must be supported, and earlier this week I called on global leaders during the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event to make sure the diagnostics pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is fully funded. It is inspiring to see the international community come together so quickly, and to commit so much. But this money must be new money, we cannot “rob Peter to pay Paul” without disastrous consequences.

Our healthcare systems are precarious, and COVID-19 is forcing many to make tough choices. We must work toward a future in which those choices don’t have to be made. Equitable and timely access to quality tests is something to which everyone should have the right, so they can get the care they need, whatever the diagnosis.

If nothing changes and the assumptions from the Stop TB report become a reality, every additional month that the COVID-19 lockdown is extended will see over 600,000 people develop TB and 126,000 die of the disease. We must stop this prediction from coming true, and protect the gains we have made not just in TB, but also malaria, hepatitis, and many other diseases. We must act by prioritizing funding for public health, rapidly ramping up R&D efforts, harnessing the power of digital tools and most importantly working alongside communities and those affected. Because throwing away years of hard-won progress is just too awful to countenance.