$460m pledged for vaccine initiative aimed at preventing global epidemics

Lassa, Mers and Nipah will be first diseases targeted by programme announced at Davos by coalition of governments, philanthropists and business

A coalition of governments, philanthropists and business is pledging to put money and effort into making vaccines to stop the spread of diseases that could threaten mankind – and to prevent another outbreak as devastating as the Ebola epidemic.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Norwegian, Japanese and German governments, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation announced they were putting in $460 million – half of what is needed for the first five years of the initiative. Three diseases will initially be targeted: Lassa, Mers and Nipah. All three are caused by viruses that have come from animals to infect humans and could trigger dangerous global epidemics.

Ebola virus had been known since it first infected humans in 1976, but the outbreaks were relatively small and, although deadly, did not greatly trouble most of the world until the disease hit cities, spread across west Africa and cases were seen in the USA and Europe.

Experts are determined to do everything they can to prevent such unexpected disasters. Ebola killed more than 11,000 people and devastated the healthcare systems and economies of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) will direct money into research for vaccines for infectious diseases that afflict low and middle-income countries and are not research priorities for pharmaceutical companies because there is not a lucrative market for them. One of the key aims of CEPI will be to ensure the vaccines are affordable and accessible to all who need them.

Jeremy Farrar, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust, said changes in the environment, in people’s interactions with animals and urbanisation were all factors that could trigger an outbreak in humans of a new infectious disease. Of the series of epidemics in the last couple of decades he said: “That is not going to stop. It is the way the world is structured now.”

There had been a tendency, though, to forget about the dangers once an outbreak has ended, noted Farrar. “Sars is the best example. The epidemic faded away and then interest went on to other things,” he said.

Ebola was different, said Farrar. “It was on TV screens and many people witnessed it for themselves. There was a feeling that this can never happen again. It was horrific. Many thousands of lives were lost. But also there was the optimism and hope that maybe for the first time in history, a vaccine was found to be safe and effective. We can dare to dream and can change the way things happen.”

CEPI aims to develop two promising vaccines against each of the first three diseases so that they are available before any epidemic breaks out.

Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is involved in the initiative, said: “We are not really learning the lessons from the previous pandemic. We are never really changing our level of readiness.” GSK was asked by the World Health Organisation in the summer of 2014 to try to develop an Ebola vaccine and had it ready to trial by the following January. That time could have been much shorter if there had been something on the shelf.

The company intends to create a “biopreparedness organisation”, based permanently at its research facility in Rockville in the USA, to work on a no-profit, no-loss basis to develop vaccines for diseases that could potentially pose public health threats.

Epidemics, said Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, “ ... can ruin societies on a scale only matched by wars and natural disasters. They respect no borders and don’t care if we are rich or poor. Protecting the vulnerable is protecting ourselves. This is why we all must work together to be better prepared – and why my government is fully committed to ensure that CEPI achieves its mission.”

Contributor

Sarah Boseley Health editor

The GuardianTramp

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