Tuesday morning of the 2017 BIO International Convention commenced the Infectious Diseases & Vaccines Track with a highly engaging session titled, “CEPI: A New Approach to Vaccine Funding and Innovation for Emerging Infectious Diseases”.
The panel was moderated by Amy Finan, CEO of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Panelists included Nancy Lee, the Global Health Lead-Policy at the Wellcome Trust; Rajeev Venkayya, the President of the Vaccines Business Unit at Takeda Vaccines; Dr. Richard Hatchett, the CEO of CEPI; Julie Gerberding, the Executive Vice President & Chief Patient Officer at Merck & Co., Inc.; and Nima Farzan, the CEO and President of PaxVax.
The recent outbreaks of Ebola, MERS and Zika have served as a wake-up call about our lack of global preparedness for emerging infectious disease threats. Policy leaders, vaccine stakeholders and industry have all been working to resolve the challenges of developing vaccines where commercial incentives are limited. Now the global community has launched an ambitious new initiative to stimulate the development of vaccines to prevent or arrest future public health crises: the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Co-founded in 2016 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum, Wellcome Trust and the governments of Norway and India, CEPI aims to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines against priority threats.
Panelist Julie Gerberding noted the important role of biotechnology companies in acknowledging their responsibility to be the custodians of vaccines, which fosters an industry culture of positive ethics and values. Gerberding’s company, Merck, is in the midst of developing and delivering an Ebola vaccine in West Africa. She summarized some challenges, including that even if the scientific and regulatory stages are completed for a vaccine, the delivery stage can be a frustrating struggle in developing countries. Gerberding emphasized that CEPI can help solve this problem by assisting at all stages and how its success can demonstrate the feasibility of a sustainable model for end-to-end vaccine product development.
Panelist Nima Farzan noted that CEPI provides a critical opportunity for smaller companies to drive innovation in vaccines. He noted that most vaccines are developed by the top 30 pharmaceutical companies while most drugs begin development with small companies. Much of this disparity is attributable to the unique challenges of vaccine development; however, CEPI may allow smaller companies to have an increased presence in vaccine development. Farzan outlined the challenge that older, established technological platforms may sufficiently analyze or identify the next novel virus. Thus, there must be a diverse set of platform technologies ready to best address novel threats.
Panelist Rajeev Venkayya noted the importance of the private sector’s role in developing vaccines as the only viable way forward—as opposed to government-developed vaccines that have a history littered with failure. However, governments must not shy away from this space as public funding and support is still critical. He emphasized that CEPI focus on two overarching objectives: developing vaccine products and ensuring that in-need populations receive those products. Venkayya pointed out that CEPI’s presence in vaccine development also helps by taking on some of the risk by being the central figure in orchestrating partnership agreements.
Other panelists reiterated this point, including Nancy Lee who said that the formation of CEPI is “about shared risk and shared benefits as no single actor can do this by itself”. Lee went on to say that CEPI provides a new way to partner for vaccine stakeholders. She articulated that the formation of CEPI also presents a move toward a sustainable ecosystem for the development of vaccines—and this seemed to be a unanimous sentiment among the panelists. She also pointed to the lessons learned from the Zika and Ebola outbreaks that a quick response is essential to arrest and contain an outbreak.
Panelist Richard Hatchett, who recently became CEPI’s CEO a couple months ago, began his introductory remarks by stating that “CEPI is a truly global partnership,” and noted that it is going to take a concerted effort “to address real, palpable threats”. He notes that his organization will take on a public-private partnership, and that CEPI has the unique opportunity to go beyond being a funder—it will be involved in the end-to-end development of novel vaccines. To achieve its mission, CEPI must build relationships with all stakeholders, including local and national governments, regulators, global institutions and private industry.
Hatchett noted that CEPI has chosen three diseases—Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-coronavirus, Lassa, and Nipah—on which to focus so that it can maximize its resources toward maximum impact. These diseases were chosen from the WHO’s list of 11 anticipatable disease threats after a close examination of factors for each disease: current scientific knowledge, status of various pipelines, vaccine feasibility, and which diseases would have the greatest impact or benefit from a vaccine. Over time, CEPI intends to increase funding and capacity to address a greater portfolio of threats, especially novel threats. In its near-term objectives, CEPI’s priorities are to hire staff, build relationships, mobilize resources, establish priorities, and get the word out.
CEPI presents a new era in which there is a coordinated global effort to help advance vaccines to address emerging infectious diseases. The CEPI-driven environment for vaccine development will help provide the mechanism necessary to rapidly respond and prevent future epidemics. And the stakes have never been higher as the moderator, Amy Finan, noted that “in a crisis, time lost can mean lives lost.”