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Gates and partners launch epidemic preparedness initiative

A 26-year-old man, the third participant enrolled in VRC 207, receives a dose of the investigational NIAID/GSK Ebola vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. Credit: NIAID

Pandemics beware. Bill Gates is coming for you armed with a new vaccine initiative and $700 million.

A global health coalition unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, aims to prevent the next great pandemic. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) said that it will help develop vaccines for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-coronavirus, Lassa and Nipah.

“This is a substantial step that deals with a problem that can keep you up at night if you really think about it which is that the world is not prepared for these kinds of epidemics,” Bill Gates said today at a panel event to launch the program.

He said the coalition has raised $700 million, a significant portion of the target $1 billion budget for the first five years. The idea for the coalition began last year at the World Economic Forum. A series of meetings in 2016 established the mission and raised money, with commitments from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and the governments of Norway, Germany and Japan.

The slow global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the motivating factor behind the initiative. More than 10,000 people died as the disease spread across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Poor health systems in the three countries and a slow international response helped the deadly and highly transmittable virus spread. The only way to stop Ebola was to prevent its spread.

A vaccine developed in 2003 sat unused. Researchers tested it on monkeys in 2005, but the high cost of human trials prevented it from going further. It was one of a half-dozen vaccines fast-tracked for human trials during the outbreak. A study showing it was 100 percent effective at preventing Ebola was published The Lancet in December – more than two years after the outbreak.

Thousands of lives could have been saved if the vaccine had been deployed sooner. A simulation by the Wellcome Trust shows how many lives could have been saved if a vaccine was introduced at different points during the outbreak. The coalition would like to keep the same story from playing out again. It is partnering with pharmaceutical companies to fill in the funding gaps that prevent the testing and development of vaccines.

“For the world not to be prepared for the known pathogens is unacceptable. And that is where we are today,” said Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust director, in the panel discussion. “The greatest risk is to do what we did with SARS – forget it and move on.”

A perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine by Farrar and other leading global health professionals, outlines the need for new vaccines against epidemic infectious diseases. They say that the global effort to deal with potential problems is fragmented.

“Without cross-sector coordination or focus on timely vaccine-development capabilities, even the effort mounted against Ebola will be hard to replicate,” they wrote. “We hope that CEPI’s capabilities and partnerships will enable it to adequately address epidemic vaccine-development needs and help contain outbreaks quickly, providing a sort of global health insurance policy.”

Gates, Farrar and other panel members admit that CEPI alone is not the solution. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg stressed the need to think beyond vaccines. Gates shared similar concerns and said that he worries that people will think the problem of pandemics is being addressed and move on to other issues.

Guinea’s President Alpha Condé had differing concerns. He spoke about the importance of building up health systems and local capacity. He admitted that the country was unprepared to respond to Ebola. Its health officials could not process and track the strain fast enough, and the country did not have the ability to stop it from spreading.

“Yes we want vaccinations, but we believe with a better performing system, we will not need people to send us international experts,” Condé said, according to the panel’s translator.

“We could do it ourselves.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]