By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A leading global health fund has asked international businesses and governments to provide $8 billion to support development and production of COVID-19 tests, drugs and vaccines.

British-based Wellcome Trust said the initiative, dubbed COVID-Zero, is aimed at the private sector and it is urging chief executives of multinational companies to join the coalition and save lives.

An initial $8 billion by the end of April – a fraction of the sums wealthy governments have injected into struggling economies – would be enough to develop new COVID-19 tests, drugs and vaccines and to begin scaling up production, the fund said.

“This is a global issue that will continue to plague the world and businesses for months, if not years, to come,” said Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome’s director.

“We want business leaders to give a small proportion of the money they are dedicating to coping with this crisis to solving it. We hope that governments will follow their example.”

Wellcome says that $2 billion of the initial $8 billion needed would be used to help poorer and more vulnerable countries to build a stockpile of masks, medicines and other defences against future outbreaks.

The COVID-19 disease pandemic has triggered a sharp downturn in an already slowing global economy and sparked a rout across financial markets, wiping about $15 trillion from stock markets alone.

More than 1.32 million people have been reported infected by the novel coronavirus and 74,087 have died.

A Reuters snap poll of more 50 economists in North America, Europe and Asia over April 1-3 showed that the global economy is expected to contract by 1.2% this year, compared with a forecast of 1.6% expansion in a poll three weeks ago.

Scientists around the world are working to develop vaccines and test existing drugs that could be potential treatments for COVID-19 while also seeking to improve diagnostic tests. 

But Farrar warned that these teams are in danger of running out of funding, without which new treatments might never get out of laboratories to reach clinical trials and, ultimately, the people who need them.

“Drugs, vaccines and rapid diagnostics are the only way we have of saving lives, bringing this pandemic to an end and preventing it reappearing,” Farrar said.

“This is the only exit strategy, but we do not have the funding we need.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by David Goodman)