Late last year, everyone hoped the worst of Covid-19 was behind us and things would soon get back to normal. Unfortunately, Omicron had other ideas. This variant has spread faster than any other virus in history.
While studies suggest Omicron cases may be less severe, especially for vaccinated individuals, nations all over the world are experiencing their largest case rates of the entire pandemic, and many health systems are in danger of once again becoming overwhelmed.
Despite these challenges, we’re still optimistic this pandemic can end in 2022. Global collaboration on innovation that reaches everyone is the key to defeating the virus and preventing a future pandemic. Through the remarkable work of researchers, industry, and public authorities around the world, we have seen science move at record speed to develop Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics, saving millions of lives, changing the trajectory of this disease, and providing light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Now we need to build on these innovations with more and better solutions, including vaccines that work against all variants and can more quickly reach more people. That’s why the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are increasing support for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), a cornerstone of global pandemic prevention, by 50 per cent to €264 million, and the European Commission is continuing its support to an expanded role of Cepi. We also urge global leaders to pledge generously to Cepi so it can reach its $3.5 billion target and advance its vital work.
Originally created by a coalition of governments and organisations in 2017, after the Ebola crisis in west Africa, Cepi’s task is to ensure future epidemics are addressed more quickly by accelerating vaccine development and helping them roll out more rapidly and fairly to countries in need.
Even before Covid-19 struck, Cepi was supporting research into mRNA vaccines, the scientific breakthrough that helped accelerate the world’s response to the crisis. As early as January 2020, the organisation began forming partnerships with vaccine developers to confront the disease, securing critical parts of the supply chain (such as the glass vials needed for doses), and working with other global organisations to ensure low-income nations weren’t left out.
They have funded 14 Covid-19 vaccine candidates (three have been granted emergency use listing by the World Health Organisation and six continue to be developed through funding from Cepi) and many “mix and match” trials to confirm different two-dose vaccines and boosters remain safe and effective when one is paired with another. Recently, working with Novavax’s manufacturing facility in the Czech Republic, Cepi secured one billion Novavax doses for distribution through Covax.
As a global institution devoted to protecting the entire world, Cepi has a strong complementary role to play with national and regional health efforts, including the EU’s recently created Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (Hera). Like Cepi, Hera works to encourage international collaboration on expanding global vaccine production, solving problems such as supply chain bottlenecks, supporting clinical trials and research into new innovations, and helping low- and middle-income countries grow their regulatory and manufacturing capacity.
On a host of fronts, Hera and Cepi will closely co-operate to prevent future pandemics, because, just as nobody knows where the next variant or virus will develop – only that it will spread if left unaddressed – the next game-changing innovation could happen anywhere too.
That’s why one of Hera’s core tasks is putting global preparedness at the centre of the international agenda. For example, the EU is partnering with the United States, both technological leaders on advanced vaccine platforms, to beat the pandemic and facilitate global vaccination. Co-operation with partners such as Cepi is equally important to drive this development forward.
Since Omicron, Cepi has further expanded its scientific partnerships to develop a potential “variant-proof” vaccine that offers protection against all current and future mutations of the disease. They are also working with partners to fight six other potentially epidemic diseases, and even creating a library of vaccines against diseases few have even heard of so we have them when needed.
Cepi’s ambition to accelerate vaccine development – a goal shared by the G7 nations – will be a huge part of future response efforts and save millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Along the way, their work is also advancing vaccines for other longtime scourges like HIV and TB. At the heart of all Cepi’s efforts lies the principle that innovations should benefit everyone.
Two years into Covid-19, we’re all justifiably exhausted by the toll this virus has taken on our countries and communities. But there are many reasons for hope. Working together, new, innovative players like Cepi and Hera have a plan to defeat the disease and better prepare for the future.
By creating countermeasures against all potentially dangerous pathogens, Cepi can help stem a regional outbreak before it becomes another pandemic. Collaborating with Hera and others, Cepi is enabling science that provides global benefits, building innovative partnerships between established and developing vaccine manufacturers, and strengthening regional institutions and supply chains, so more nations can quickly immunise their citizens and threats like Covid-19 can be cut short early.
To help them succeed, we also need to come together and give these innovative, multilateral public health institutions the support they need to protect everyone. Investing in innovation now is the best way to boost our ability to respond to health crises wherever they may arise and ensure a pandemic like Covid-19 never happens again. We’re delighted to help and urge others to join us.
Bill Gates is co-founder of Microsoft and a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Stella Kyriakides is the commissioner for health and food safety for the European Commission.