June 7, 2021
To: Dr. Philippe Duneton, Executive Director, Unitaid Madame Marisol Touraine
Unitaid Executive Board
Dear Dr. Duneton, Madame Chair Touraine, and Esteemed Members of the Unitaid Board,
We write to call urgent attention to the plight of the 354 million people living with viral hepatitis and the dire need to elevate efforts to improve patients’ health, which has potentially resounding effects for affected communities, governments, and global health. We applaud Unitaid’s leadership in strengthening and accelerating activities to ensure generic access to HIV, viral hepatitis, TB, and malaria treatments, and the development of simpler, point-of-care diagnostics. We commend your organization’s significant accomplishments, in partnership with civil society organizations (CSOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community advocates, to spur global uptake of innovations in hepatitis C virus (HCV), to sensitize governments and communities, and to catalyze political commitments to end viral hepatitis, HIV, TB, and malaria in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Thanks to highly effective treatments and vaccination, we have the unique opportunity to end HBV and HCV globally by 2030. We must seize this opportunity to ensure that hepatitis patients are not left behind and that diseases with the greatest chance for cure in our lifetimes are eliminated.
We urge Unitaid to continue making catalytic investments towards curing people with HCV and treating people with HBV and to enable LMICs to reach WHO targets and Sustainable Development Goal 3 by 2030 through funding and targeted action.
Unfortunately, progress towards HBV and HCV elimination in the majority of countries is hampered by the difficulties of finding and diagnosing asymptomatic patients, due to complex and costly diagnostics and antiviral/direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) prices that are still unaffordable where generic access is not possible. We believe that CSOs, NGOs, community health workers, and affected communities, with the support of Unitaid and other partners, can help overcome these barriers and accelerate progress on all these fronts.
Significant progress in other fields has been made to generate demand for simpler diagnostics and more optimal treatments, to increase treatment uptake, and to adopt changes in national policies by supporting community engagement efforts led by people living with HIV and TB, such as the IMPAACT4TB initiative. Notably, community engagement, as part of treatment and diagnostics literacy and leadership-building efforts, have been important activities in the Unitaid- funded HEAD-Start project to generate demand for simpler, innovative HCV diagnostics, and are an integral component of the Unitaid LONGEVITY grant to develop long-acting formulations for malaria, HCV, and latent TB infections. Unitaid’s support has enabled affected communities to meaningfully participate in high-level national elimination planning; aided in scaling up community-based testing and treatment with oral DAAs; and strengthened the technical capacity of community leaders to serve on steering committees and a WHO-level technical working group focused on HCV and substance user health. Additional investment is necessary to sustain this momentum, to strengthen and capacitate effective leadership that achieves similar accomplishments as in the HIV and TB spaces, to spur action towards HBV elimination, and to ensure greater participation by affected communities in advancing health equity in national elimination strategies.
To date, Unitaid’s investment in HCV and grassroots advocacy to champion the needs of affected communities and people disproportionately affected by viral hepatitis has made enormous impacts. Community healthcare and advocacy trainings have increased HCV awareness and strengthened technical knowledge of thousands of community-based providers in at least a dozen countries when launching national hepatitis programs. Support for community-government dialogues have contributed to community mobilization to find the ‘missing millions’ of undiagnosed patients; decentralized testing and treatment; and catalyzed initiatives, such as the integration of viral hepatitis test-and-treat programs in HIV, maternal health, harm reduction, and prison settings.
Unitaid’s unique and holistic involvement in HCV also instigated the development of innovative, simpler diagnostics, including HCV self-tests, generated real-world evidence on the effectiveness of generics, and supported the development of ravidasvir/sofosbuvir. Unitaid’s end-of-project evaluations have also acknowledged the game-changing role that core antigen rapid diagnostics tests could play for bringing fast, confirmatory testing to the community level.
Despite HCV and harm reduction programs saving lives, saving costs, proving cost-effective, and providing enormous returns on investment, the funding necessary to apply these innovations to accelerate treatment and diagnosis is absent. We are deeply concerned by the impact that COVID-19 has had on implementing viral hepatitis programs worldwide, in addition to ever-growing funding gaps in this field. Global hepatitis programs are estimated at US$500 million annually – less than one-tenth of the US$5-6 billion required annually to achieve elimination by 2030. Global health funding for harm reduction is also dire, amounting to 5 percent of the US$2.7 billion required annually to meet global need.
Additionally, while investment and prioritization has led to progress towards HCV elimination, to date, very little progress has been made towards eliminating HBV, which affects 292 million individuals and has effective treatments that prevent liver cancer and save lives. HBV continues to be under-prioritized globally, and it is critical that we are more inclusive of HBV when planning for and funding viral hepatitis elimination efforts.
We encourage Unitaid to help reinforce health systems during the pandemic and bridge funding gaps, thus playing a catalytic role to accelerate access to HBV and HCV diagnostics and treatments in LMICs. In fact, leveraging Unitaid’s COVID-19 funding, such as research and development on HBV surface antigen and core antigen rapid diagnostic tests; support for lab infrastructure and civil society networks to integrate viral hepatitis screening/testing in COVID- 19 responses; and investing in community engagement across its projects, could strengthen health systems to address viral hepatitis and to continue to work on HIV, TB, and malaria under your mandate. We propose several strategies as part of creating these enabling environments:
Expansion of awareness among decision-makers that HBV and HCV are diseases that can be eliminated by 2030 with existing tools but that need community education and participation, action plans, and financing;
Development of financing mechanisms for viral hepatitis elimination;
Support for simplified HBV and HCV diagnostic tools; and
Support for access to simple and affordable DAA and HBV treatments in high-burden LMICs.
The 130 signatories of this letter represent CSOs and NGOs committed to eliminating viral hepatitis, healthcare providers, patients, and communities living with or affected by HBV and HCV and fighting for affordable, equitably accessible treatments and diagnostics. We welcome an opportunity to further discuss with you how discontinuing funding for HCV-related initiatives will roll back the progress that we’ve made.
We request acknowledgement of this letter and a meeting in the coming months to plan how we can collaboratively tackle this global health issue and continue to offer hope to the hundreds of millions of people living with or at risk of viral hepatitis.
Treatment Action Group
Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative FIND, the global alliance for diagnostics