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Rewriting Life

The Billion-Dollar Bid to Prevent Epidemics

Filling a gap that pharma fails to fund, a new initiative will develop vaccines to prevent outbreaks of emerging viruses.

The world’s largest-ever initiative to develop vaccines for viruses that could pose an epidemic threat has been announced.

The new scheme, which will be known as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), is initially funded by $460 million, with $100 million from each of the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the remainder supplied by the governments of Norway, Germany, and Japan. CEPI hopes to have raised a full $1 billion by 2022, with India and the European Commission already expected to make contributions.

The coalition, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, aims to develop vaccines for viruses that could conceivably become widespread in the near future, then build a supply of them to ensure that outbreaks like Ebola don’t occur again. First on the list: Lassa fever, the Nipah virus, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

A health worker fumigates a home in El Salvador against mosquitoes to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

The coalition will also develop so-called platform technologies—experimental approaches to producing new vaccines that use synthetic DNA to kick-start an immune response. In theory the techniques could help build vaccines faster, but its abilities for this kind of application are largely unproven.

So why is an initiative of this scale required? As the Wall Street Journal (paywall) neatly puts it: “There are no vaccines for many emerging infectious diseases, because they cost more to develop than pharmaceutical companies can reap in sales.” The new scheme was, apparently, born out of lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where no vaccine was available.

Instead of relying entirely on the pharmaceutical industry, CEPI will try to tie together academia, private companies, and governments, bankrolling work that may otherwise be tough to fund. In doing so, it hopes to take at least four vaccines from lab research, through development and testing, to a stage where they can be manufactured in bulk within the next five years.

If that sounds ambitious, wait until you hear what Bill Gates, one of the backers, aims for the project to achieve. Speaking to the Financial Times (paywall), he said that he would be "disappointed" if it can't reduce the time it takes to create a vaccine for a virus like MERS to less than 12 months. The current process can take more than a decade.

CEPI is setting itself a hugely ambitious target, then—one that it’s not guaranteed to meet. But even if it misses on its speed goals, the initiative will at least be developing vaccines for viruses that would otherwise be missing out on large-scale investment.

(Read more: Nature, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times)

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A health worker fumigates a home in El Salvador against mosquitoes to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.
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