A Fund to Fill the Vaccine Gap

Supporting researching to combat the next big pandemic.

Dan Page
Sarah Smith
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Sarah Smith
Oct. 9, 2015, 5 a.m.

After see­ing the world flounder in re­sponse to the Ebola crisis, three aca­dem­ics—Pro­fess­or Ad­el Mah­moud of Prin­ceton, Pro­fess­or Jeremy Far­rar of Ox­ford, and Pro­fess­or Emer­it­us Stan­ley Plotkin of the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania—had an idea that could help pre­pare for the next pan­dem­ic: Cre­ate a glob­al fund for re­search­ers who are de­vel­op­ing vac­cines that are past the point of be­ing fun­ded by gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions but aren’t yet at­tract­ive to phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies. I re­cently spoke with Mah­moud about the idea. Our ex­change has been ed­ited and con­densed.

What prob­lem in vac­cine de­vel­op­ment would the fund ad­dress?

It’s a re­flec­tion of the dif­fi­culties that this world faced when the Ebola out­break star­ted spread­ing in West Africa, and we were poorly pre­pared. In our world, there are a lot of or­gan­iz­a­tions—like NIH, ob­vi­ously—that sup­port dis­cov­ery re­search. We have had three or four—some­times people will tell you sev­en—po­ten­tial vac­cines for Ebola that were dis­covered and put in a freez­er. So the area of dis­cov­ery re­search, which says, “This is a po­ten­tial XYZ,” is well-sup­por­ted.

Now on the oth­er ex­treme end, when there is an at­tract­ive vac­cine, par­tic­u­larly for the Big Pharma com­pan­ies, they will go after it and spend their own money if the vac­cine seems to have a mar­ket or a need—or there is a glob­al crisis, like what happened with Ebola. Two ma­jor phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies took the ini­ti­at­ive to de­vel­op vac­cines and test them. But be­fore this, the re­sponse was a fail­ure on a lot of levels. We did not have a vac­cine in spite of the fact the vir­us was dis­covered over 40 years ago. Pos­sible vac­cines were in the freez­er—they wer­en’t ready to be de­veloped and de­ployed. They had not gone through test­ing.

In between the dis­cov­ery and a glob­al dis­aster, there is what we call the “val­ley of the death.” That area is where dis­cov­ery re­search is be­ing con­duc­ted in gov­ern­ment labor­at­or­ies and in aca­demia, but there is no clear-cut use for the vac­cine, ex­cept pre­par­ing for the un­seen fu­ture, or it is not com­mer­cially vi­able. That is the gap. We need a vac­cine for MERS (Middle East Res­pir­at­ory Syn­drome), for ex­ample, or SARS (Severe Acute Res­pir­at­ory Syn­drome).

How would the glob­al vac­cine fund work?

First, we have to raise the money. The­or­et­ic­ally, money for something like that would need to be raised from gov­ern­ment, from phil­an­thropy, or from in­dustry. It should have a board, a me­di­um-sized board of about 12 to 15 ideally, not a big board. The board should rep­res­ent the key ele­ments in the pro­cess of that fund: gov­ern­ment, some in­dustry, bi­o­tech­no­logy, the phil­an­throp­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions, maybe the aca­dem­ic and so­cial or­gan­iz­a­tions, and some of the in­ter­na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tions. It would then open its pro­cesses in a very trans­par­ent way to be judged by an in­de­pend­ent sci­entif­ic vo­lun­teer com­mit­tee from uni­versit­ies, gov­ern­ment, and re­search in­sti­tu­tions. It would have fund­ing based on pro­pos­als that are sub­mit­ted and re­com­men­ded, and it would ab­so­lutely mon­it­or pro­gress and de­liv­er­ables.

How much money would you want the fund to raise?

Our pro­pos­al is for a $2 bil­lion fund. We’re prob­ably talk­ing about between $100 and $200 mil­lion to take a can­did­ate product dis­covered in a labor­at­ory to the end. So, if you have $1 bil­lion, you can fund between five and 10 pro­jects. If you have the $2 bil­lion, you can fund between 10 and 20 pro­jects.

How would you re­plen­ish the money?

The main source is to go back to the fun­ders who gave the money and say, “Look, we have ac­com­plished what we set out to do, and we need some money.” An­oth­er the­or­et­ic­al angle—and at this point it’s very the­or­et­ic­al—is that if the fund helps the de­vel­op­ment pro­cess for a vac­cine, and it is picked up by the in­dustry and sold in the de­veloped world, then we say, “We need you to put back some of the profits in­to the fund.” But it would mostly be from fun­drais­ing.

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