The in-rush of funding for basic science is likely to give a boost to scientists who study disease, but how much will it help global health?
It was an announcement worthy of Apple’s Steve Jobs.
But it came from another internet giant: Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, pediatrician Dr. Priscilla Chan.
And instead of promising new wearable tech gear for a more exciting life, Chan and Zuckerberg offered to extend that life expectancy to 100 years.
But not just your life. Your family’s, too. And your neighbors’.
And the billions of other people around the world.
Invest at least $3 billion over the next decade to “cure, prevent, and manage all major diseases by the end of the century.”
That means by the time Zuckerberg’s and Chan’s daughter Max is in her 80s she wouldn’t have to worry about Alzheimer’s disease or heart disease or strokes … or even cancer.
And people living in the poorest countries could rest more easily knowing that malaria, sleeping sickness, cholera, and other common diseases have been snuffed out.
There’s no doubt this is a lofty goal.
But is it even possible?
Especially with only 84 years — well, 83 years and three months — until the end of the century.
To cure or prevent diseases, scientists first have to figure out what causes them.
And then identify possible treatments or ways to prevent those conditions.
Many of these treatments are tested in animals to make sure they are safe and work the way scientists suspect.
But after that, there are rounds of clinical trials in people, with doctors looking to see if the treatments are effective and don’t have unexpected side effects.
The bottom line: Curing disease is not cheap.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is donating a large amount of money.
Which is why it has generated quite a bit of positive buzz, like the video put out by the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit institutions and foundations dedicated to increasing investment in basic science.
But even $300 million a year for the next 10 years pales in comparison to what other organizations have already been spending to cure disease.
According to data gathered by NBC News, over the past 10 years the Howard Hughes Medical Institute gave $8 billion to scientists for their research.
And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent more than $10 billion since its founding in 2000 to fight malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases.
Pharmaceutical companies spent even more on the development of new drugs and vaccines — $58 billion in 2015.
But one of the biggest spenders for both basic science and clinical research in the academic realm is the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In 2016, the NIH had an annual budget of $32 billion, targeted at researching causes of diseases and developing new ways to treat or prevent them.
In an interview with NPR, Dr. Francis Collins, Ph.D., the director of the NIH, and a physician-geneticist and former leader of the Human Genome Project, welcomed the contribution by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
But he added it won’t even make up for the drop in NIH funding over the past 16 years.
In a 2009 annual letter for his foundation, Bill Gates wrote, “Our optimism about technology is a fundamental part of the foundation’s approach.”
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative may be taking a similar approach to boosting the power of its funding — through a combination of technology and science networking.
The initiative will spend $600 million over 10 years to support a “Biohub” in San Francisco.
This independent research center will bring together biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, and others.
The partnership with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will include Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco.
One of the first projects of the initiative is to create an atlas of all cells in the human body, along with their location, numbers, neighbors, and molecular pieces.
In an interview with CNN, president of Chan Zuckerberg Science, Cori Bargmann, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and geneticist, sees the cell atlas project as an engineering problem.
It would be a program along the lines of the larger-than-life Human Genome Project or the moon landing project.
The project may not directly target disease in the beginning. But the hope is that a cell atlas would speed up the discovery of new ways to prevent, manage, or cure disease.
In spite of the optimism around the initiative’s announcement, it’s still a long road from supporting basic research to preventing, curing, or managing all diseases by the end of the century.
And new technologies alone may not be enough to improve global health.
In the United States, existing medications are helping people with HIV live longer. This is a big win for medical research.
But in Africa, only 41 percent of people with HIV had access to these lifesaving medications in 2014, according to the
Even in the United States some people can’t afford lifesaving medications.
And then there are all the other factors that contribute to the health of a country’s population — adequate housing, food stability, clean water, living wages, and universal access to healthcare.
No matter how many drugs or medical treatments are developed, these will still need to be addressed.
“If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is serious about integrating the promotion of equality into its disease prevention and cure goal, it should transcend the narrow technological focus of dominant global health approaches and invest in the broad societal underpinnings of health,” Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Sc.D., a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, told Healthline in an email.
Lack of these basic necessities has contributed to the poor life expectancy in many countries.
In Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Uganda, the average life expectancy in 2015 was less than 60 years, according to
The United States — one of the biggest spenders on medical technology — comes in 31st place, with an average life expectancy of 79.3 years.
As seen with other diseases like heart disease, bacterial infections, and cancer, new medical technologies and drugs can be powerful tools for improving global health.
But only if everyone has access to them.
“Any such effort would also need to challenge the global rules that enable corporate interests to trump people’s health,” said Birn, “as in the case of pharmaceutical profiteering that impedes access to essential medicines across most countries.”