The world wasn’t ready for the Ebola epidemic of 2014. Global reaction times were slow and a vaccine didn’t begin human trials until after the worst was already over. Yet today, Bill Gates points out that we’re still “tragically unprepared” for the next outbreak.
That’s the reason why he and a collection of countries and NGOs are creating a fund specifically aimed at developing new vaccines for diseases before they become a global disaster.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) will look at some of the most high-risk viruses most likely to cause pandemics in the future. It’s starting off with three viruses: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Lassa, and Nipah. It might also help with research on other viruses like Ebola, Marburg and Zika.
“We know from Ebola, Zika and SARS that epidemics are among the significant threats we face to life, health and prosperity,” said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust. “Vaccines can protect us, but we’ve done too little to develop them as an insurance policy. CEPI is our chance to learn the lessons of recent tragedies, and outsmart epidemics with new vaccine defences.”
The fund has raised an initial investment of $460 million so far from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Britain’s Wellcome Trust and the governments of Japan, Norway and Germany. It’s asking for a total of $1 billion to fund it through its first five years.
Just why is the fund so important? Because according to CEPI’s creators, the private sector just isn’t enough to address the world’s need for new vaccines. Big drug companies tend to avoid investing money and research into diseases where they’d have a hard time recouping their costs. Poorer countries where the danger of epidemic is greatest end up getting ignored.
Years before the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed 11,000 lives, scientists in Canada and the U.S. had previously studied a possible vaccine for the disease. But research ultimately stalled and the vaccine ended up sitting on a shelf indefinitely. Researchers were having a hard time finding a drug company willing to invest money to take it to human trials.
So instead of seeking profitability, CEPI will pick the diseases it’ll focus on based on a priority list created by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The free market alone wasn’t strong enough to fight off outbreak. Hopefully, a foundation like CEPI is the dose of medicine we need to prevent the next pandemic.