Vaccines have played a central role in human health advances since their discovery by Edward Jenner more than 200 years ago. In this country, most people remember receiving their BCG vaccination against TB and the little pink sugar cube against polio while at school – both of those diseases have thankfully disappeared in Ireland as a result of those vaccination programmes.
But vaccines and immunology can play a far greater role in healthcare than disease prevention and even eradication, according to MSD vaccines president, Mike Nally.
“We have seen different waves of innovation in vaccines over the years and we have been blessed with the most recent wave”, he says.
“MSD has developed four new vaccines for HPV, shingles, chicken pox and Rotavirus, which causes infant diarrhoea, in recent years. In many respects our company continues to lead in the development of ways to better harness the immune system to prevent and treat disease. Take immuno-oncology, for example. The immune system can be a very powerful ally to attack diseases such as cancer. We are development new treatments by combining immune stimulatory agents with therapeutic vaccines. It’s a really exciting time for science.”
He points out that this focus on vaccinology is rooted in a heritage going back more than a century.
"We have a very rich heritage in this area", says Nally. "Maurice Hilleman, who is credited with saving millions of lives every year through the vaccines he developed worked for MSD for many years."
Hilleman’s record is unparalleled in the history of vaccinology. He developed more than 40 vaccines in his lifetime including those for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria.
“This heritage allows us to approach vaccinology in many ways”, Nally adds. “And we now see it as one of best solutions to the problems facing healthcare systems globally.”
The story is not just one of innovation and the development of new vaccines, however.
“It’s also about access and partnership”, he explains. “We have to ensure that patients have access to the vaccines and treatments and that means working in partnership with governments and healthcare providers. Ireland has a great vaccination history and the health minister is doing a great job here.”
One of the issues facing vaccines in recent years has been unfounded claims of adverse side-effects. “We have to look at how we counteract misinformation in an appropriate way”, says Nally. “We have to continually keep people informed of the facts and ensure that there is balance to the debate. An informed public is very important.”
The consequences of a fall-off in vaccination are very serious indeed. “The really sad piece here is that sometimes it takes the re-emergence of a potentially fatal disease to remind people of the importance of vaccination. In certain parts of the world we are now seeing measles re-emerging where it had once been deemed eradicated.”
The HPV vaccine, which is primarily aimed at preventing cervical cancer, is another case in point. The fact that it was being administered to young girls caused some controversy among some segments of society but the evidence now emerging is proving the doubters wrong.
"We are starting to see now, a little more than a decade on, the data beginning to emerge from early adopters. Australia was one of the first countries to start HPV vaccination programmes and we are seeing a halving of cervical cancer rates there. But it's a much broader issue than just one type of cancer. The vaccine is a tool that can lead to the elimination of a range of HPV-related diseases that affect both men and women."
The continued development of new vaccines in therapies is vitally important as well of course.
“Innovation is the lifeblood of MSD and I see other waves of innovation coming along. We are increasingly harnessing the body’s own immune system and this is leading to better understanding of vaccinology than ever before. We have a number of late-stage candidates that could benefit society for many generations to come in our pipeline. These will address pneumococcal disease; respiratory syncytial virus (RSV); Cytomegalovirus (CMV); and dengue fever. We combine good science with a desire to address unmet healthcare needs in the development of these vaccines.”
Those unmet needs included new viruses such as Ebola and Zika.
"During the Ebola outbreak in 2015 we partnered with Newlink Genetics to produce a vaccine which was found to be highly protective against the virus. This is in line with our mission to save and protect lives. We are also part of CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), which is aimed at speeding up the development of vaccines to prevent future epidemics. We need to be better prepared to deal with emerging diseases like Ebola and the Zika virus. But how do you prepare for a disease which hasn't even arisen yet? Our goal is rapid response and containment. MSD as a company has a role to play but this has to be in partnership with a broad coalition of stakeholders including governments, NGOs, and regulators."