Here’s a fact that’s hard to believe: At this time two months ago, the world did not yet know about the omicron variant.
It’s both remarkable and horrifying how quickly omicron has become the dominant cause of COVID-19 in many countries. In just seven weeks, it has led to record-high case numbers and hospitalizations around the world. I’m still optimistic that the pandemic can come to an end sometime in 2022, but first we have to contend with a virus that’s spreading faster than any other in history. (I recently had a good discussion about this with global health Professor Devi Sridhar.)
The omicron surge has been an unfortunate reminder that the only way to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 somewhere is to eliminate it everywhere. As long as the virus continues to circulate at a high level in some parts of the world, we’ll always be at risk for another devastating variant. Game-changing innovations—including vaccines and new antivirals—will save lives but won’t truly accelerate the end of the pandemic until they’re accessible to everyone.
That’s why the Gates Foundation is renewing its investment in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI. I’m excited to announce a new $150 million commitment to its future work on COVID and beyond.
Our foundation helped create CEPI in 2017 to accelerate work on vaccines against new infectious diseases and make sure those vaccines reach people in the poorest countries. The organization has played an invaluable role in the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the leaders of COVAX, the global effort to get vaccines out to low- and middle-income countries.
As with malaria, polio, and many other diseases that our foundation works on, the key to pandemic prevention and preparedness is to keep on innovating. This pandemic’s most significant innovation is mRNA vaccines, which were available less than a year after the virus that causes COVID was identified. CEPI began funding efforts to develop mRNA vaccines for COVID just days after the virus was detected outside of mainland China. (One of the candidates CEPI backed in January 2020 was Moderna.)
But CEPI’s support for research on mRNA vaccines predates COVID-19—which is one of the reasons the approach was successful. The groundwork had been laid years before by investments from governments, pharmaceutical companies, and (more recently) CEPI. And the progress they’ve supported will continue to pay dividends long after the COVID pandemic ends. The mRNA platform is already being used to test new vaccines for TB and malaria diseases. Scientists are hard at work formulating next-generation vaccines that don’t require as many doses and don’t need to be kept frozen.
Altogether, CEPI has invested in 14 COVID vaccine candidates and it continues to work on variants of concern and develop next-generation vaccines that could protect against all coronaviruses. It is also focusing on six other diseases of epidemic potential.
But creating new vaccines isn’t enough. We also have to make sure that everyone who can benefit from vaccines has access to them, and that’s where the world has collectively failed in its response to COVID. While at least 9 billion doses were distributed in the past year, less than one percent went to people in low-income countries. It doesn’t make sense that so many people at lower risk of infection in wealthier countries got vaccinated before we reached the most vulnerable people, including the elderly, those with underlying medical conditions, and healthcare workers.
We need to do better the next time the world faces a pathogen that has the potential to spark a pandemic. (I’m currently writing a book about what the world needs to do to prevent the next pandemic, which will come out later this year.) I believe that the world can and should be ready to develop a new vaccine and make enough for everyone in the world within six months of detecting a potential pandemic—and CEPI will play a crucial role in achieving that. It is one example of how we need to be making investments now to support innovations that will prevent disasters in the future. For example, the organization is supporting efforts to increase manufacturing capacity and recently released a study that provides valuable insights into how we can improve the world’s production capabilities. This is the type of investment we need to make now to prevent disasters in the future.
And because CEPI is a global institution rather than a national one, it can focus on providing access for everyone, alongside other effective global institutions that have saved millions of lives like WHO, Gavi, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. These groups will help make sure that vaccines don’t just go to the highest bidders.
Imagine how different the last two years would’ve been if everyone in the world had had access to safe, effective COVID vaccines within six months. I know it’s hard to think about the next pandemic as the omicron variant surges around the world, but we have an opportunity to make sure the world never experiences this hardship again. Investing in organizations like CEPI is an important step that moves us closer to a world without pandemics.