Sindy Li: "Does research into neglected tropical diseases dominate GiveWell top interventions?"

By Sindy Li

Read and comment on the Google Document version of this post here.


I started by consulting a report by Max Dalton at the Centre for Effective Altruism. It aims to provide cost-effectiveness estimates of medical research into diseases prevalent in low-income countries, mostly by reviewing existing literature on this topic, complemented by some new calculations of estimates. First, Max gives some reasons why one would expect, ex ante, that tropical disease research is neglected, important and tractable. Then he goes over cost-effectiveness figures in the existing literature that attempts to estimate it, and gives new estimates based on adapting GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness calculation for research into cancer. The resulting cost-effectiveness estimates from all these sources range from 5 to 235 $/DALY, whereas those for GiveWell’s current top charities are about $80/DALY (I haven’t checked this). He discusses possible sources of biases and uncertainties of these estimates. Given these, he argues that it is possible that some of the best funding options will be more effective than GiveWell’s current top charities, for certain diseases and under certain funding mechanisms. However, this has much uncertainty, and the best funding opportunities might be very hard to find. He suggests future research on disease- and funding-mechanism- specific issues, which require scientific expertise and an applied focus.

Next steps

In the Appendix (which I have not read) Max provides more information on specific diseases and funding-mechanisms, organizations, and cost of drug development. I plan to read it to assess whether any disease is likely to have funding opportunities that can plausibly be more cost-effective than GiveWell’s current top charities. In the meantime I will also assess if I have the required expertise to make such judgement, and if not, which experts I should consult, or perhaps this would not be worth pursuing on my end due to lack of available expertise. If so, I would consider looking into interventions that address root causes of poverty (one specific example: interventions for improving institutional quality and governance in developing countries, and their impact on other outcomes in society) -- although now I’m thinking this won’t be promising (at least for our project) since NGOs actually doing these interventions seem rare, even if they are effective according to academic research.