$656 million vaccine initiative to tackle viruses

Governments and charities launched an initiative aimed to develop safe vaccines to contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies.
Governments and charities launched an initiative aimed to develop safe vaccines to contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies. PHOTO: AFP

DAVOS (AFP) - As the world still reels from outbreaks of deadly Ebola and baby-deforming Zika, governments and charities on Thursday (Jan 19) launched a US$460-million (S$656 million) initiative to "outsmart" infectious epidemics.

The goal is to develop safe vaccines to contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies, the creators of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"We want to prioritise vaccine development for what we have defined as the most important threats," CEPI's interim chief executive John-Arne Rottingen told journalists.

"But we need also to be prepared for the unknown." The priority will be vaccines against the highly-contagious and fatal Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) as well as the Lassa and Nipah viruses, which could cause serious epidemics.

It will aim to create two vaccines for each of these viruses "so that these are available without delay if and when an outbreak begins", the coalition said in a statement.

CEPI will also look into supporting vaccines being developed against multiple strains of the Ebola and Marburg viruses, and against Zika.

"Ebola and Zika showed that the world is tragically unprepared to detect local outbreaks and respond quickly enough to prevent them from becoming global pandemics," said billionaire Bill Gates, who backs the project.

About 11,300 people died in a 2013-16 Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - the worst outbreak by far in the disease's 40-year history.

And since 2015, more than 2,200 babies in Brazil have been born with microcephaly, a crippling deformation of the head and brain, in an unprecedented outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The race is on to develop vaccines against both diseases, but none has been registered yet.

So far, CEPI has received money from Germany, Japan and Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust medical research charity.

It has raised almost half the US$1 billion needed for its first five years of operation.

"CEPI will need significant additional investment, and the initial CEPI funders are calling today for other governments and philanthropic organisations to join them in helping to protect the world against future epidemics," the statement said.

Other participants in the initiative include the World Health Organisation and pharmaceutical groups such as GSK, Pfizer and Sanofi.