Global coalition aims to outpace epidemics with new vaccines

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - A global coalition of governments, health specialists and philanthropists will launch a new plan on Thursday to “outsmart” future disease epidemics with a fund to prepare and create new vaccines.

Health workers carry the body of a suspected Ebola victim for burial at a cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, December 21, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

Stung by the devastation of West Africa’s 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,300 people before an effective vaccine was developed, the coalition is aiming to ensure such deadly outbreaks can’t happen again.

John-Arne Rottingen, interim chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said it is designed as “a global insurance policy against epidemic and pandemic threats”.

CEPI’s founders used the World Economic Forum in Davos to announce its launch, with initial funding of $460 million from the governments of Germany, Japan and Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust global health charity.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation and a leading global health philanthropist, said recent major viral disease epidemics - Ebola and Zika - showed how the world “is tragically unprepared to detect local outbreaks and respond quickly enough to prevent them from becoming global pandemics”.

“Without investments in research and development, we will remain unequipped when we face the next threat,” he said. “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.”

The initial commitments mean CEPI has raised nearly half the $1 billion it needs for its first five years. It is now calling for proposals from researchers and companies who want to work on developing shots against its first target diseases - the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Lassa and Nipah viruses.

Rottingen said all these have shown the capacity to spread across borders and become fast-growing outbreaks causing death and illness. CEPI aims to drastically shorten the time it takes to make vaccines to protect against these and other viruses, which can emerge suddenly as global public health threats.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, told Reuters CEPI aims to develop two vaccine candidates against each disease before any epidemic, so they are ready for rapid deployment in field trials if and when an outbreak starts.

He noted that with Ebola, despite huge international efforts to work faster, a vaccine was developed and validated as 100 percent protective only in the final months of the West Africa epidemic, after thousands had been infected and killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“This partnership is trying to make sure the horror of Ebola is not forgotten,” he said. “There are moments in time that have to be seized.”

CEPI is also backed by major pharmaceutical companies, the World Health Organization and the international health charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Joanne Liu, head of MSF, welcomed the launch of CEPI but said price, safety and speed were crucial. “For new vaccines to be game changers, they must be developed and tested before outbreaks hit and made accessible and affordable for all communities in times of health crisis,” she said.

Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Trevelyan