An Ebola vaccine and the future of fighting infectious disease

Health workers put on protective gear before entering a quarantine zone at a Red Cross facility. Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Seth Berkley
Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
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In 2000, private and public sectors came together at Davos and created a Vaccine Alliance to protect the world’s poorest children from preventable disease. Last year, Gavi celebrated vaccinating more than half a billion children. It was a tough act to follow on our 16th anniversary at this year’s World Economic Forum, but we came close, announcing a new Ebola vaccine partnership that will help prevent another devastating epidemic.

Since its escalation in 2014, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has called into question many of the ways we work in global health. Our approach to the risks of emerging diseases and bringing new vaccines to market are two areas of particular concern and, as I explained in my TED talk last year, both of them have contributed to insufficient global pandemic and epidemic preparedness.

There is no single solution to these enormous challenges, but what is clear is that they are too big to be solved by one organisation alone. When it comes to emerging diseases, the world can only get ahead of the curve by working together.

Herein lies the strength of public private partnerships. By combining the unique skills and perspectives of a variety of stakeholders, they provide flexibility to respond to emerging crises, and to change approach as the situation demands.

Gavi is one of the most concrete examples of partnership that has come out of World Economic Forum. From the very beginning, we’ve worked with the private sector to address issues that had previously put life-saving vaccines against measles, whooping cough and many other illnesses beyond the reach of children in the world’s poorest countries.

By stepping up with our partners to counter another market failure, this time within the context of a severe epidemic threat, we are pushing the public private model even further. Gavi has agreed in advance to purchase the Merck Ebola vaccine if and when it is licensed. Merck will submit an application for licensure by the end of 2017.

In the meantime, Merck has submitted an application for the vaccine to be licensed for emergency use in case of further outbreaks. From May this year, 300,000 doses of the best-known protection against Ebola will be available in the case of another outbreak and for further clinical trials. It’s an unusual deal for an unusual situation, but an excellent example of how we can work with the private sector to fill dangerous gaps in the market.

Partnership was the foundation from which we made this leap. On Wednesday, Merck and The Wellcome Trust helped Gavi’s newly appointed Board Chair Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, USAID’s new administrator Gayle Smith and myself deliver the news. Without these and other partners, such innovation would not be possible.

But this is not the end of the story. While it’s a relief to have an interim measure in place, the threat of different Ebola strains and other emerging diseases like MERS and Zika remain clear and present dangers.

Helped by globalisation, climate change and the continuing pace of modern society, infectious disease is constantly evolving and spreading. To avoid future epidemics and pandemics, our toolbox has to grow. Collaboration is an essential part of this process.

Partnerships like Gavi provide a forward-looking solution. We have demonstrated the value of our model, reducing vaccination disparities and saving millions of lives over the long term. Our new Ebola vaccine agreement shows yet again that partnership will be a key tool for the future of emergency preparedness and response.

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