The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a public-private coalition that aims to derail epidemics by speeding development of vaccines, has committed US$460million to speed up vaccine development for MERS, Lassa fever and Nipah virus – three relatively little-known diseases scientists think could cause the next global health emergency.
Aiming to have two new experimental vaccines ready for each disease within five years, CEPI has also asked funders at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland for another US$500 million.
It takes about a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a new vaccine.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, closely followed by the Zika epidemic in Latin America, exposed just how “tragically unprepared” the world is for new outbreaks.
Before the 2014 Ebola outbreak, there were only small Ebola epidemics in isolated communities, according to Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the founding members of CEPI.
“But in the modern world with urbanisation and travel, 21st Century epidemics could start in a big city and then take off the way Ebola did in West Africa.We have to be much better prepared,” Farrar added.
Ebola killed more than 11,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, while the arrival of the Zika virus in Brazil in 2015 has left thousands of children brain-damaged.During both outbreaks, there were no treatments or vaccines to prevent people getting sick.
Scientists scrambled to resurrect research on these obscure diseases.Effective vaccines were eventually developed during the Ebola outbreak, but only as it started to wane.
Nevertheless, governments, scientists and regulators all came together with unprecedented speed, and managed to expedite the notoriously complex development and regulatory processes.
CEPI wants to continue that momentum and develop vaccines for other viruses so that by the time an outbreak hits, experimental vaccines are ready to be sent to affected areas for large human trials that can establish how effective the vaccine is.
Lassa, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Nipah virus are at the top of the list of 10 priority diseases that the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified as potentially causing the next major outbreak.
Aside from known threats, such as Ebola and the other diseases, there are also all those viruses that are known but are thought to be very benign, said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of the WHO. However, she said, these “benign” viruses could mutate and become more dangerous for humans.
“Then there are the things that are completely unknown to us at the moment,” said Kieny.
The lottery of viruses that could hit us next makes it very difficult to plan for the future.
Pharmaceutical companies aren’t lining up to invest in these little-known viruses because there is no commercial market for them.However, some have come on board with this new alliance, including GSK and Johnson and Johnson.
Farrar said that the world has been lucky so far since recent outbreaks haven’t become airborne.But he said a far more contagious version of an Ebola-like virus could emerge.
“I could cough it over you today and you could cough it over someone tomorrow and it could spread very quickly.That puts the world in a very vulnerable place,” he said.