The Road to a Coronavirus Vaccine Runs Through Oslo
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- A key player in the race to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus doesn’t conduct biomedical research. It’s 3 years old, has just 68 permanent employees, and is headquartered in Norway, which so far has reported zero cases of the illness. But the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is “incredibly necessary,” says Dr. Manuel Martin, the adviser for medical innovation and access policy at Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). “Absolutely, without a doubt,” CEPI has accelerated development of a vaccine against the virus, says Phyllis Arthur, vice president for infectious diseases and diagnostics policy at Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group.
Since CEPI’s contribution is organizational, attention usually goes to the scientists it supports. But the coalition is a societal immune response, speeding the development and deployment of vaccines that the private sector on its own lacks the profit motive to undertake.
The need for it became clear after the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000. Scientists had begun working on a vaccine, but no company had produced one, because the market was small and potential recipients poor. An ad hoc consortium rushed one into existence.
CEPI was conceived at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016. It started in Davos a year later with funding from the forum, the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome Trust, a London-based research charity. It’s raised $760 million toward its target of $1 billion, with multiyear funding from its founders as well as Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and the U.K.
Finding a vaccine for the new coronavirus is the coalition’s first big test. On Jan. 23, less than a month after Chinese scientists identified the virus, CEPI announced funding of vaccine development projects led by Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and Moderna Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.
On Jan. 31 the group reported a development agreement with biopharmaceutical company CureVac AG of Tubingen, Germany. On Feb. 3 it announced a deal for vaccine giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC to supply its adjuvant technology, which juices up some vaccines by enhancing the body’s immune response to them. (Chinese and Russian companies are working on vaccines outside CEPI’s auspices. A Chinese drugmaker, BrightGene Bio-Medical Technology Co., is mass-producing an experimental therapy, remdesivir, that belongs to Gilead Sciences Inc. of Foster City, Calif.)
The goal is to have a vaccine ready for wide deployment in 12 to 18 months, says Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEPI’s executive director. That timetable means the vaccine won’t stem the current outbreak. But it will be essential if the virus comes back—or never goes away. The nightmare scenario, says Hatchett, is a disease that combines a fraction of the lethality of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome with the contagiousness of the common cold. “Possibly,” he says, “that’s what we’re dealing with now.” Both MERS and some colds are caused by coronaviruses—as is Covid-19, the name given to the new disease.
The coalition has a head start against Covid-19 because it was already working on a MERS vaccine. It’s also been developing a “rapid response” platform for new threats. That’s how flu vaccines work; a core component is tweaked to battle novel strains. Except in CEPI’s vision, the platform could fight different diseases, not just versions of a single one.
CEPI solves what economists call a “coordination problem.” It can help pair boutique research and development companies with big vaccine manufacturers, work with regulators to streamline approval processes, and resolve patent disputes on the spot. Its scientific advisory committee has executives from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical, among others.
The coalition has had its disagreements. Some corporations objected to its original “equitable access” policy, an 18-page document that spelled out how vaccines produced under its auspices would be provided at affordable prices in developing nations. The policy also gave CEPI “step-in” rights to use companies’ intellectual property for vaccine production if they withdrew from the agreement. In response to the objections, CEPI scaled back the document to a two-page statement of principles, while continuing to insist that vaccines will be affordable and available. Doctors Without Borders objected to the watering down of the language. “I marvel that the companies found the original policy was not market-oriented enough when the free market had completely failed” to deliver vaccines, Martin says.
Hatchett, CEPI’s executive director, says pathogen outbreaks are “an emergent property of global 21st century society. We created a world that gives microbes lots and lots of opportunities.” The necessary response, he says, is groups like his. As viruses evolve, society needs to change to counter them.
Read more: Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak Across the World
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