Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for everyone at any age is a tall order, particularly if the aim is to achieve this by 2030. Yet this is the mandate of the third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3), one of a set of 17 global goals designed to guide development priorities for the next 15 years.
Given the difficulty in defining and measuring "well-being for all," and the enormous health challenges facing low- and middle-income countries today, it's no surprise that SDG3 has been criticized for being a utopian "fairytale."
But if you dig a little deeper, and go beyond the vague overarching language of SDG3, you find a set of nine specific health targets that accompany the goal -- such as targets for reducing infectious, maternal, newborn and child deaths. In low-income countries, for example, an astonishing one in 10 children dies before the age of five. SDG3 sets the target of reducing this ratio to just one in 40 or less by 2030.
The good news is that we're uniquely poised to achieve dramatic progress toward many of the ambitious targets of SDG3. Right now, we have a once-in-human-history opportunity to achieve what we are calling a "grand convergence" in global health -- a reduction in infectious, maternal and child deaths down to universally low levels everywhere on the planet.
In the report of the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health (CIH) that we coauthored with 23 other economists and health experts, we showed that grand convergence could be reached in just one generation. It would require a concerted international effort to deliver health interventions and services to all those who need them. We have the financial and ever-improving scientific capability to make this happen.
Our report showed that SDG3's child-mortality target -- that all countries should reduce their child death rate to at least as low as one in 40 -- is feasible. But today's health tools alone won't get us there. We'll need tomorrow's tools, as well, including new medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and other innovations.
One of the SDG3 targets is to "end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases" by 2030, which is scientifically impossible unless we develop and deliver breakthrough technologies.
Investing in global health R&D won't just save millions of lives. It will also reap astonishing economic returns.
Take the polio vaccine. In the 1950s, the March of Dimes invested about US$26 million in developing the vaccine. Since routine vaccination was introduced in the United States, more than 160,000 polio deaths and about 1.1 million cases of paralytic polio have been prevented. Treatment-cost savings have generated a net benefit of around $180 billion. It's hard to think of a better $26 million investment in human history. And these numbers don't even take into account the avoided collective anguish of families who would have been impacted by polio.
Today's scientists are focusing on equally game-changing innovations, like an HIV vaccine. Our colleagues Dean Jamison and Rob Hecht have shown that every $1 invested in this vaccine would return between $2 and $67, assuming a vaccine of 50 percent efficacy becomes available by 2030 and R&D costs about $900 million annually. Other game-changers -- like a single-dose malaria cure or inhaled oxytocin to treat life-threatening maternal bleeding -- are likely to bring similar economic returns.
Discussions about global health R&D often lead to concerns about whether countries have the institutional capacity to deliver new tools. One of the striking features of health innovations is that they can be "capacity-conserving." Our main tool for preventing malaria is arranging regular mass distributions of bed nets and teaching households how to use them properly, a hugely resource-intensive intervention. When we develop a highly effective malaria vaccine, we will be conserving such resources. Bed nets will come to be seen as a cumbersome relic, akin to the iron lung in the era before polio vaccines.
In the CIH report, we called on donors to step up their R&D investments. Public, private and philanthropic investors are now on the lookout for high-impact R&D opportunities to catalyze global change. Today, 129 billionaires have pledged to give at least half of their wealth to charity through The Giving Pledge. Health is their number-one interest.
But investors want more guidance on how to achieve maximum impact. We believe a new "health investors' platform" could provide this kind of strategic knowledge about the greatest health challenges facing poor populations, the most promising candidates in the R&D pipeline, and the likely health and economic impacts of developing these into health tools that will reach the poor. The Innovation Countdown 2030 report, led by PATH, is a great start -- it identifies 30 high-impact innovations that could be game-changers for global health and help achieve several of the SDG3 targets.
The CIH report challenged all of us to reach higher and faster. The ambitious targets contained in SDG3 can only be achieved if we find creative ways to bring new health tools to those with the greatest health needs.
Lawrence H. Summers is Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard and a former U.S. Treasury Secretary.
Gavin Yamey is Professor of the Practice of Global Health and Public Policy at Duke University.
This piece was adapted from an article published on Innovation Countdown 2030 on July 12, 2015.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 3.