Zeroing in on Unmet Global Health Needs: Why Wellcome Trust is Looking at Lassa

The U.K.-based Wellcome Trust is one of the largest charitable organizations in the world and it has its sights set on solving some of the biggest global health problems of our time. In 2015, the trust announced its plan to dig even further into its already deep funding pockets by committing to increase its health related funding by $7.7 billion over five years. A significant component of that increased financial commitment and funding strategy is dedicated to supporting innovative research in a number of different disciplines while keeping basic sciences, applied research, social science, and humanities at that center of its work.

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Another major point of funding interest at Wellcome is its desire to support innovative global health projects addressing unmet healthcare needs. And when it comes to unmet global health and healthcare needs, the field is incredibly crowded. While this may make it difficult for the trust to decide which projects to fund, the field is certainly narrowed when taking into consideration that Wellcome is on the lookout for those that are not only innovative, but ambitious in nature. Which explains its latest award to combat and treat Lassa fever.

The Wellcome Trust awarded the biotech company Kineta, that focues on “the translational development of novel immune modulating and antiviral drugs” a grant of up to $7.2 million to help further its development of a new antiviral therapy to treat Lassa. The grant was awarded out of Wellcome’s Translation Fund, which supports “innovative and ambitious applied R&D projects with an unmet healthcare need.” And Lassa fever certainly qualifies as an unmet healthcare need—there are very few global health funders looking into Lassa.

To be fair, compared to other viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, Lassa isn’t spread as quickly nor does not affect as many people, which could explain the lack of funding interest. Lassa is responsible for around 5,000 deaths annually in West Africa and an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 contract the infection each year. The disease is generally confined to Benin, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, but there is mounting evidence that it’s spreading rather quickly through Nigeria. And according to Temitope Awe, executive director of the Caring Hearts Foundation, “the daily migration of people from the Northeast due to the insurgency,” is a “major concern.”

While there may not be a need to sound the alarm quite yet, Wellcome Trust’s investment in combatting and treating Lassa is definitely warranted. An investigation by the UK newspaper The Guardian discovered that the virus is becoming increasingly fatal with death rates rising “from about 40 percent to 100 percent” in some Nigerian states.

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Statistics aside, it’s really not unusual for the Wellcome Trust to make big bets in its global health investments. At the end of last year, it announced it’s Our Planet, Our Health program, a five year, $116 million initiative to support scientific study into the connection between the physical environment and human health and well-being.

During that time, the trust awarded a $5.8 million (£3.8 million) grant to the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) to begin its Phase 2a trial of the tuberculosis vaccine candidate ID93 + GLA-SE that will take place in South Africa. It’s also invested in suitcase diagnostic kit that can quickly detect the Ebola virus, which will likely have other global health applications such as detecting infectious diseases to prevent outbreaks from becoming epidemics.

Clearly, the Wellcome Trust isn’t afraid to take risks in its grantmaking and it does so at a pretty swift pace. Which is, for the most part, unusual for a grantmaker of this size.