The effort to prevent and stem epidemics got a shot in the arm on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, with the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
The coalition, which launched with an initial pool of investment of $460 million, will finance vaccine development as well as research into innovative platforms that could help bring epidemics under control. Members include the governments of Germany, Japan and Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
CEPI aims to respond to some of the key challenges exposed by the West Africa Ebola epidemic and improve global health security. It adds to a growing number of initiatives looking at the importance of building responsive health systems. With its launch and call for proposals, it opens up new financing to scientists and vaccine developers focused on often neglected diseases.
CEPI was born out of conversations at last year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, when Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the now co-chair of CEPI, brought together governments, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to discuss what could be done to prevent the next Ebola crisis.
One of the key recommendations made following the pandemic was “that the current R&D [research and development] system is not fit for purpose to produce vaccines and therapeutics where we have no market incentives and have high uncertainty where next epidemic will be,” he said on a call with reporters.
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A year later, CEPI will bring new funds to those challenges. Specifically, the coalition will initially focus on three diseases: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Lassa fever and the Nipah virus, all of which have the potential to cause epidemics.
A scientific panel, drawing on information from the World Health Organization and using a set of criteria that included public health impact, risk of an outbreak and the feasibility of a product being developed, chose those diseases because there was little work being done to investigate vaccines and prepare for a possible outbreak, said Nancy Lee, the policy program manager at the Wellcome Trust.
Other diseases such as influenza or Zika, which have funding or present a commercial market opportunity, were intentionally left off the list. But CEPI may also support further research into vaccines against Ebola and Marburg.
CEPI will also research technologies and platforms that could improve future response to as yet unidentified threats, an aspect of the coalition that is “very important” to the Gates Foundation, said Trevor Mundel, the president of global health at the foundation in the call with reporters. The coalition was a natural fit for the foundation’s model of identifying and working to address market failures, such as the lack of vaccines for diseases for which people in low and middle income countries are likely to bear the brunt of the burden.
Vaccines are notoriously difficult to develop. In some cases, it can take decades of scientific exploration, compounded by a lengthy regulatory process, to bring a product to market. That makes vaccine development for rare diseases a difficult proposition for pharmaceutical companies.
“Getting to a vaccine in a very short time frame is challenging scientifically,” Paul Stoeffels, the executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson, said on the call with reporters. “We can do our part to fund not-for-profit vaccines, but it’s important that we have collaboration.”
Coalition partners, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, hope CEPI will work closely with regulators to speed or streamline the processes for approval of some of these vaccines or new platforms, said several representatives on the call, including Stoeffels.
The coalition will be making all of its awards in the form of grants and expects awardees to share their data and sign agreements around intellectual property that will ensure access to vaccines once they are developed, Lee said. The industry partners involved are also committing to make the drugs available at affordable prices and won’t hold back access based on pricing in case of an outbreak, Stoffels said.
CEPI will evaluate proposals that come in during the next few months and expects to make early funding decisions by the middle of 2017. It will also be working to raise more money. The coalition estimates it will need a total of $1 billion, about double what it has raised thus far, for its first five years.