New Global Vaccine Fund Aims to Outsmart Future Epidemics

The Gates Foundation has joined other charitable groups and world governments in funding a $460 million initiative to develop vaccines for three major viruses.

On Thursday, January 19, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations was officially launched at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The new partnership aims to combat three viral threats that scientists have warned could soon become problematic.

At the meeting, representatives of the Norwegian, Japanese and German governments, as well as health research initiatives the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, announced they would contribute $460 million to develop vaccines against the Lassa, MERS and Nipah viruses.

The coalition hopes to learn from recent SARS and Ebola outbreaks, namely by having a vaccine already in development should an epidemic start to emerge.

This may seem like common sense, but world health authorities were slow to act when Ebola began to creep through areas of West Africa in 2014. The lack of preparedness forced public health professionals to play catch-up as Ebola infected more and more communities.

Three viruses, three potential epidemics to prevent

Lassa is a virus endemic to the rodent population of West Africa. An acute hemorrhagic illness, the virus is transmitted to humans when they come in contact with rodent urine or feces. According to the World Health Organization, Lassa has killed 160 people in West Africa since 2015. The virus can cause fever, permanent deafness and — if left untreated — death. 

Similarly, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, leads to an acute respiratory illness that can cause high fever and resulting complications. The disease has been recorded in isolated cases in the United States and in other areas outside of the Middle East

Lastly, the Nipah virus, traditionally found in bats, has the potential to infect humans and cause severe disease. The World Health Organization notes:

NiV was first identified during an outbreak of disease that took place in Kampung Sungai Nipah, Malaysia in 1998. On this occasion, pigs were the intermediate hosts.However, in subsequent NiV outbreaks, there were no intermediate hosts. In Bangladesh in 2004, humans became infected with NiV as a result of consuming date palm sap that had been contaminated by infected fruit bats. Human-to-human transmission has also been documented, including in a hospital setting in India.

Because these diseases take diverse pathways to infecting human hosts, prevention strategies to cull a primary infection species simply won’t do the job.

Scientists believe that all three of these viruses have the potential for major epidemic status, but we currently have no medical countermeasures — a challenge that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations hopes to address.

In a statement released Wednesday, Bill Gates stated, “The ability to rapidly develop and deliver vaccines when new ‘unknown’ diseases emerge offers our best hope to outpace outbreaks, save lives and avert disastrous economic consequences.”

Dr. Charlie Weller of Wellcome also emphasized that CEPI intends to future-proof our health and move from reactionary medicine toward preventative measures:

Ebola and Zika showed epidemic diseases remain a grave threat to world health. When Ebola struck the global community was not prepared. Potential vaccines existed but critically they had not been tested for safety which delayed assessment of their effectiveness to protect against Ebola. Many more diseases exist which are known epidemic threats but for which we don’t have vaccines. CEPI is our chance to learn from the past and work together to prevent future epidemic tragedy.

CEPI hopes to develop two candidate vaccines against each of the viruses. The coalition has chosen to focus on its designated “priority pathogens” to avoid duplicating Ebola and Zika studies. These efforts, of course, do not detract from Ebola and Zika research, and no financial aid has been channeled away from those pressing health issues.

The initial cash injection for this project is just over half of the $1 billion that will be needed for the first five years of the initiative. Within that time, CEPI wants to reach the second phase of testing, so that when an epidemic occurs, those vaccine candidates can be tested on the ground.

Other countries are expected to offer financial support for this project, including India which is a founding signatory and is reportedly finalizing its contributions. Rather than offer financial support, countries like the U.S. have pledged their research expertise toward this vital effort.

Moving forward, CEPI will now accept proposals from researchers. The first grants could potentially be awarded by mid- to late 2017.

Health advocates will likely monitor this project closely. After all, the initiative isn’t just about safeguarding our health, but also highlighting the West’s responsibility to protect those in impoverished nations who have suffered from a lack of resources.

Photo credit: PATH global health.

53 comments

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