After taking a several-month hiatus from the Russian science scene, philanthropist George Soros is at it again: The billionaire financier has ponied up $3 million to create two new labs in Moscow to study tuberculosis and hospital-borne infections. The funds, to be administered by the nonprofit Public Health Research Institute (PHRI) of New York City, are meant to establish a beachhead against Russia's mounting infectious-disease problem.
Since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russia's straining medical establishment has been unable to provide adequate vaccines or health care to stem a rise in TB, diphtheria, and many other infectious diseases. According to the Moscow State Sanitary Committee, Russia's annual number of new TB cases increased 42% from 1991 to 1994, while the death rate increased 87%.
Recognizing that things weren't getting better on their own, PHRI's Alex Goldfarb convinced Soros to put up the funds to outfit a tuberculosis lab at the Central Institute of Lung Disease in Moscow, which serves as the Russian National Center for Tuberculosis, and a hospital-borne infections lab at the First Moscow Medical Academy. If PHRI can raise another $5 million, Soros has pledged to chip in $2 million more in matching funds.
Next week, PHRI will send the first team of specialists over to assess the Russian institutes' capabilities and what sort of equipment they will need. This operation in itself should prove fruitful, says PHRI infectious-disease specialist Barry Kreiswirth, because Western experts know little about the prevalence of multidrug-resistant TB strains in Russia, the standard therapies prescribed there, and patients' compliance rate. "We don't know the extent of the problem," he says.
He and his PHRI colleagues do know that the $3 million initiative will only be a start. They point out that New York City has spent nearly $1 billion in the past few years to upgrade its relatively better equipped hospitals and labs to fight TB's resurgence, which continues to plague the city.