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Preparing for the Next Epidemic: A First Step

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Preparing for the Next Epidemic: A First Step
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Future Investment

Preparing for the Next Epidemic: A First Step

At a time when world leaders are understandably focused on terrorism and other security threats, another enemy is being largely overlooked—the next epidemic.

We don’t know when the next pathogen will emerge, what it will be, how it will spread, or who will be affected, but we do know that the world is not prepared to deal with it. That was the tough lesson that Ebola (and the Zika outbreak since) taught us. Ebola claimed thousands of lives, caused billions of dollars in economic losses, and showed how vulnerable our society is to epidemics of infectious diseases. As I’ve written about before, the world lacks an effective system to detect, respond to, or prevent the next outbreak.

That’s why I’m excited this week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to participate in the launch of a new organization that will help the world get ready for future epidemics. Backed by the governments of Norway, India, Japan, and Germany, along with the Wellcome Trust and our foundation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) will invest in innovations to accelerate the development of vaccines we’ll need to contain outbreaks.

CEPI’s focus on vaccine development is a critical part of getting prepared for whatever pathogens threaten us next. We know from the world’s defeat of smallpox and its successful fights against polio, measles, and other diseases that vaccines are incredibly effective tools for preventing disease and saving lives. Now, this alliance of governments, philanthropies, vaccine manufacturers, academia, NGOs, and other partners needs to work together to develop new vaccines to make the world safe from future epidemics. 

Traditional approaches to making new vaccines are too slow to respond to a sudden disease outbreak. Currently, the development of a new vaccine, including testing and deployment, is a process that can typically take more than 10 years. Fast-moving epidemics don’t allow us to be that patient. In 1918, an extremely infectious and deadly strain of the flu infected about one-fifth of the world’s population and killed at least 30 million people in less than two years. Ebola and Zika were also both frightening viruses, but the way they are transmitted—through bodily fluids and mosquitoes—helped limit their spread globally. A highly-contagious airborne disease would pose a far greater threat. It would thrive in densely populated urban areas and could easily cross national borders and oceans by air travel.

My great hope for CEPI is that it will help enable the world to produce safe, effective vaccines as quickly as a new threat like this emerges. With $460 million in initial funding, CEPI will work to bring together the most advanced vaccine technologies and resources from the private and public sector that can help lead to new breakthroughs in vaccine development. CEPI’s vaccine development strategy includes two areas of focus: “just in time” vaccines for those currently unknown pathogens that will emerge, and “just in case” vaccines for pathogens that we know are at high risk of causing another outbreak, like Ebola and Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS.

One promising area of vaccine development research is using advances in genomics to map the DNA and RNA of pathogens and make vaccines. The vaccines can be decoded by human cells to make their own vaccines and antibodies inside the body. If successful, this technology could dramatically reduce the development timeline from years to possibly months or weeks.

What’s exciting about these new technologies is that they wouldn’t just protect us from future epidemics. They also would help us to develop vaccines for existing health threats to hundreds of millions of people around the world, including HIV, malaria, and TB.

At the same time, CEPI will work to minimize regulatory hurdles that further delay the deployment of vaccines. CEPI will fund studies to evaluate these newly-developed vaccines and build vaccine stockpiles before epidemics begin, so countries can move swiftly to full vaccine efficacy trials and emergency deployment during an outbreak.

As pleased as I am to see CEPI’s work get underway, it’s important for everyone to understand that this effort is just the first step toward getting us prepared for the next epidemic. It’s an important step, but CEPI alone won’t be enough to protect us. We have a lot more work to do.

We need a global warning and response system for outbreaks. It begins with strengthening local health systems in poor countries, which have gotten hit the hardest during recent epidemics. The thousands of remote health clinics around the world will be the backbone of our global effort to defeat future epidemics. They must have trained health workers who can provide primary health care, deliver vaccines, and monitor the health of their communities.

We must have a better disease surveillance system, which includes a global database so countries can share information on cases. We also need trained medical personnel ready to mount a rapid response to an outbreak.

Last, we need to continue to invest in health research to develop not just vaccines, but also new drugs and diagnostic tests that will strengthen our ability to respond quickly and effectively to the next epidemic.

Still, we’ll never know exactly when a new disease outbreak will emerge. It could arrive tomorrow, next month, next decade, or next century. But that uncertainty shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I hope that today’s announcement marks the first of many steps the world will take to get prepared for the next epidemic. All of our futures depend on it.

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