Dr. Eric Goosby, the US global AIDS ambassador, spoke with John Donnelly about a number of issues surrounding PEPFAR and the Obama administration’s new Global Health Initiative, including how the administration hopes to ramp up treatment and prevention efforts with small increases in overall funding and how PEPFAR is constantly responding to emergencies in the field – including the move in December to give the South African government $120 million after the country had an unexpected funding shortfall in nine provinces.
Q: Roxana Rogers, USAID’s South Africa health team leader, said recently in South Africa that, “US government funding is going to come down dramatically over the next five years.” True?
A: No, it’s not true. Every year there’s been an overall increase in funding for PEPFAR, and we’ve also not been in a situation where we’ve had a decrease in any country, certainly not in South Africa. Our funding for South Africa is over a half billion dollars a year. Our resources that go into South Africa are having a huge impact, and I’m not understanding that (comment by Rogers).
We also committed to $120 million recently over two years to specifically address an unexpected shortage of funding for antiretroviral drugs in South Africa in nine provinces. The South African government asked us to be silent (about it during that time.) … It made a lot of sense for us to fund it for the simple reason that we not allow services to be interrupted and allow South Africa to respond to the increase in demand.
Roxana’s statement is based on the fact – I think – that she was used to PEPFAR funding that went up in huge increments every year — so much so they scrambled to find meaningful applications to use the funding for programs. Now we are in an economic crisis, with nowhere near the increase in funding like that, so on a relative level it may feel like a drop in funding.
Q: What happened in South Africa’s shortfall of funding for treatment?
A: PEPFAR has not run out of any antiretroviral drugs in any country, including South Africa. .. But for multiple times we’ve been asked to bail out a country for one or two months (because of drug shortages in the national program or funding shortages). South Africa had run out of resources to pay for the medication in nine provinces, starting in November. It was a significant outlay of resources for us and a real example of cooperation. In addition, we were able to work with the government to ensure their Treasury picks up the bill thereafter, so it doesn’t happen again.
Q: You have said, “Our commitment to universal coverage hasn’t wavered.” With the increase in demand for treatment and prevention around the world, how can you make that commitment with just a $141 million increase in your budget – and with some of that money earmarked for the Global Health Initiative?
A: We are committed to universal access. We are partnering with implementing countries to mount their response. Our expectation was never that we would be the sole source of funding to fight the epidemic. … PEPFAR or any other single funding line will not be able to successfully respond to the unmet need. … It’s not within one single program’s ability to mount that response.
I don’t know if PEPFAR ever presented itself that it was going to cover the entire need for prevention, care, and treatment for any country. We are definitely providing larger than the bulk of the funding – 50, 60, or 70 percent of it– in our focus countries already.
Q: You have talked in the past about finding savings in PEPFAR’s budget that would free up additional funds for treatment and prevention. What are you doing in finding these savings, including in trying to reduce the price of ARV medication?
A: We have been in long-term negotiations in every country we’re in to have the predominant purchasing (for drugs) occurring with generic manufacturers. We saw a shift two years ago, and now we’re in the high 80s, low 90 percent (of all drugs being generics) We have had discussions with South Africa … and they needed to move from about a 65 percent brand dominance to somewhere down to 10-15 percent range, which they have started to do.
We are engaged with the Clinton Foundation to look at generic pricing arrangements, toward a commitment that creates and introduces a competitive component to generic pricing. After that initial deal is cut (in a country for generic drugs) competitive pressure from another generic manufacturer in that region will continue to drive that price down.
For other efficiencies, we have looked at the Clinton Foundation and Synergos (Institute in New York City) and other organizations that have a history of this type of work. We try to understand how we can use the experiences they have had with other countries, not with PEPFAR, to learn lessons that enable us to identify efficiencies for treatment and for prevention interventions.
Q: You are now helping to create partnership forums with countries on the HIV/AIDS response. How will you be able to ensure the representation of civil society groups in situations like the one unfolding in Uganda now – with the proposed law that would outlaw homosexuality?
A: PEPFAR has played a central role in being the dominant response in Uganda to the epidemic. We are now and always have been treating gay men in Uganda. Whether the country has admitted that or acknowledged that is a different issue — they never have. From day one, the Infectious Diseases Institute and TASO (The AIDS Support Organization) have been central in that response, and that will continue. In addition, PEPFAR is in a position to play a role in the partnership frameworks to engage in a substantial dialogue with country leadership about the public health impact from such a law. … With such a law, there is a fear that this will stop the flow of patients into testing and into treatment. We will always fight against that in the way our programs are implemented. PEPFAR also has an opportunity to identify – and fund – higher risk populations.
Q: How does that strategy work?
A: We could fund non-governmental organizations that do outreach, that create support groups. … Then there is a growing number of individuals who feel safe and who are willing to take those risks who coalesce in a group that can be funded as a separate NGO. In China now, there is an increasing number of NGOS created specifically for high-risk groups, especially men who have sex with men. … There is a need in creating these safe islands of safety so they can be tested and treated.
Q: For many years, you were on the outside of government, an activist, giving advice to those in power. What should activists be focusing on today?
A: Activists have played from the beginning of the epidemic a central role in reflecting a conscience for policymakers and for governments to understand their responsibility in orchestrating an effective response to this epidemic.
What I think is most needed today is for advocates to look at the larger picture of responsibility, i.e., who is responsible for the response, and to start to talk about it as a shared responsibility, not just dependent on any one country to model a response, but (about the US) playing an appropriate needed role as a world power, an economic power, a political power.
Also, the advocacy originally in the US was by those most impacted by the disease. There needs to be advocacy now coming from the infected and affected communities in countries where we’re most engaged.