Designing New Vaccines: Responding to Disease X

The spread of infectious diseases in the era of globalization means that public health is a global shared resource. A brand-new, infectious disease with no known cure or vaccine—call it Disease X—puts us all at risk. Unfortunately, designing new vaccines for unknown viruses isn’t enough to motivate the private sector to invest the time and resources to create treatments.

So, how do we approach preparing for future epidemics and pandemics?

Banding Together to Accelerate New Vaccines

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, is a partnership of governments, foundations, and pharmaceutical companies. They joined forces in 2017 out of the World Economic Forum at Davos. CEPI is working to fill the gaps in the vaccine development, manufacturing, and distribution process.  

CEPI supports

Coordinating activities to improve our collective response to epidemics, strengthening capacity in countries at risk, and advancing the regulatory science that governs product development.

Twenty countries, plus the EU, plus private sector companies and donations, have pledged $1.4 billion to support the effort.

CEPI itself is a Norwegian organization. Interestingly, none of ten most populous countries (as listed by the CIA WorldBook) are members.  Japan is the most populous single country member. Of course, the EU is a huge bloc of people.

Designing a Global Response to COVID-19

Since February 2018, one of CEPI’s priority diseases has been the next new virus–Disease X. Since by definition researchers can’t design new vaccines for an nonexistent disease, CEPI has been working to build the foundational technologies needed to rapidly manufacture vaccines regardless of the specific disease.

CEPI’s work against Disease X put them in a strong position to engage the fight against COVID-19. They are currently involved in 9 partnerships to develop vaccines against COVID-19. The aim is to move vaccine candidates into clinical testing as quickly as possible.

A Military Response to Disease X

This Washington Post story shows that, despite its current bungled approach to controlling the coronavirus, the United States has also been working on the problem of Disease X.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, or DARPA, heads the Department of Defense’s rapid innovation efforts. DARPA is famous for putting impossible deadlines on impossible tasks and then, somehow, mostly achieving them.

A decade ago, DARPA sought to answer the question of how the military could quickly design new vaccines in response to weaponized viruses. Without a vaccine, an army facing an unknown virus is defenseless.

A quick response meant developing a way “to produce antibodies for any virus in the world within 60 days of collecting a blood sample from a survivor.”

When the current coronavirus appeared, the DARPA-funded teams switched their work to focus on stopping its spread. Now, the first two US companies with vaccines entering clinical trials were funded in part by DARPA.

Designing New Vaccines is a Social Good

Designing new vaccines is one place where the approach of marketing for the social good applies.

Sometimes, society needs to design a product for which there isn’t a current need. That’s not a role at which the private sector excels. In part, that’s because there’s not a ready buyer who needs the product. With social goods, the buyer and the user can be separate parties. In this particular case, that’s an advantage.

Social good organizations like governments, nonprofits, and academics, can band together to spread the cost, share the work, and distribute the product.

Banding together is also a way to govern the commons of global public health.

Governing the commons is all about levels of decision making and action. CEPI smartly created a new, global level for managing global response to viruses. They are working at the international or supra-national level to improve response to pandemic. They are augmenting the existing roles played of individual countries, states and local jurisdictions.

As the private sector in many places is struggling to design and distribute virus-fighting products and services, consistently promote public health measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, and fairly price access to health care, social good organizations around the world are showing the forethought and cooperation needed to defeat Disease X.

(Image and image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

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