Australia - Global health R&D

Australia’s funding for global health R&D grew in 2018, signaling the strategic importance of regional health security

In 2018, Australia invested US$36 million in research and development (R&D) for poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs), referred to in this profile as ‘global health R&D’. According to data from the G-FINDER survey conducted by Policy Cures Research, Australia’s funding for global health R&D increased steadily by US$2 million each year between 2015 and 2017. In 2018, funding increased more significantly, from US$25 million to US$36 million. Australia is the seventh-largest public supporter of global health R&D in absolute terms, up from eighth in 2017.

Australia's Global health R&D

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Australia’s spending on health R&D is guided by the country’s development goals including protecting Australia’s health security and promoting economic growth, with a regional focus on the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Health R&D (particularly around COVID-19) is a key component of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) newly released development strategy, ‘Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response’, which was launched in May 2020. Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, released in November 2017, also highlights health security as an essential component of human and economic development. Economic growth is mentioned as a primary goal in Australia’s ‘Health for Development Strategy 2015-2020’.

Australia’s focus in the health R&D sector (as throughout its development program) is on the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, this focus was based largely on the predominance of drug-resistant malaria and tuberculosis in these areas, which also poses a threat to the security of Australia. In 2018, 40% (US$15 million) of spending on global health R&D was directed toward malaria, while tuberculosis received 16% (US$6 million). Most of Australia’s funding in 2018 was directed toward basic research (45%, US$16 million) and drug development (22%, US$8 million). Basic research aims to increase the scientific understanding of diseases.

In 2018, academics and research institutions received 69% (US$25 million) of Australia’s global health R&D ODA. Some of this funding was disbursed through the Health Department’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). As part of the FY2019/20 budget, the MMRF’s Global Health initiative will spend A$28 million (US$21 million) over 10 years on improving understandings of global health threats, with an initial focus on tackling antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant tuberculosis. Between 2016 and 2018, the non-ODA MRFF also funded the National Security Against Pandemic Risk initiative, through which it contributed A$2 million (US$1 million) to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to support the development of vaccines against future pandemic diseases.

Product development partnerships (PDPs) are the second-largest recipients of Australian ODA in this sector. The Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific Region, launched by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in October 2017, pledged A$300 million (US$224 million) over five years for research into prevention and containment of infectious diseases that may cause “social and economic harms”. This included a A$75 million (US$56 million) PDP fund. Funding for PDPs is divided between the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), the TB Alliance, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC). According to G-FINDER data, these organizations are tied for second place as top recipients of Australia’s global health R&D funding (US$3 million each in 2018). In January 2019, the government announced a new contribution of A$5 million (US$4 million) to CEPI as part of the Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific.

Both the MRFF and the Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative have more recently been involved in channeling funding as part of Australia’s international response to COVID-19. In March 2020, Australia has committed funding to support COVID-19 vaccine development: A$2 million (US$1 million) through the MRFF, and A$3 million (US$2 million) to support research at the University of Queensland. State governments are also helping to finance these initiatives. In April 2020, Australia announced funds to support the conversion of a former animal health lab into the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, which will research zoonotic infectious diseases. As of May 4, 2020, Australia had committed a total of A$337 million (US$252 million) for domestic research and development efforts on COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and respiratory medicine.

The Government has invested A$1.7 billion (US$1.3 billion) from the domestic health budget to secure early access to almost 85 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. In addition, multi-year domestic funding of A$362 million (US$270 million) is being provided for diagnostics, vaccine development, antiviral development, clinical trials, digital health research infrastructure, and research into the human immune response to COVID-19 infection.

A$15 million (US$11 million) in ODA funds was provided in May 2020, to be split equally between CEPI and FIND. (This pledge builds on previous commitments: A$7 million or US$5 million to CEPI for 2017-2022 and A$29 million or US$22 million to FIND for 2015-2022.) These funds will be provided under the under DFAT’s Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative.

In late September 2020, Australia joined Gavi’s COVAX Facility, the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. This was budgeted from domestic funding, unlike the A$80 million (US$60 million) for the Gavi-COVAX Advance Market Commitment.

The NHMRC is the largest funder of global health R&D; the Human Development and Governance Division (HGD) leads on health policy development within DFAT

The largest funding body in this sector is the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), a self-governing statutory authority. In 2018, the NHMRC disbursed US$22 million in non-ODA in funding for global health R&D.

DFAT ODA funds to deliver the ‘Health for Development Strategy 2015-2020’ come from country, regional, and global programs, and are delivered through the regular budget process. The Human Development and Governance Division (HGD) is the driver of health development policy and provides guidance to assist with the implementation of this strategy. The Development Policy Division (DPD) also works with other DFAT programs to plan and adjust pipeline investments. In conjunction with the Department of Health, DFAT works with other key agencies to prepare and respond to health security threats in the region.

DFAT is currently reviewing the Pacific health programs over 2008-2017, and this will inform bilateral and regional programming in future years. A strategic framework for 2019-2022 is in place for Australia’s largest regional health initiative, the Australian Government’s Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific region.