In late 2002, the first few patients contracted SARS, a respiratory disease that often leads to death, in China. Within weeks, thousands were ill, and the virus was spreading rapidly across the world. The first pandemic of the new millennium threatened the lives of many thousands, and despite heavy efforts, a vaccine took long to be developed.
More recently, Ebola swept across West Africa and killed thousands, building the threat of a new global epidemic. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to streamline efforts at containing pandemics and developing vaccines in order to protect global health.
Mr. Gates presented the new organization at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
CEPI’s goal is to drastically cut the time from outbreak to vaccine in order to limit the spread and minimize the death toll. Besides the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, founding members of CEPI include the Wellcome Trust as well as the governments of Germany, Norway, Japan and India. Private sector firms are expected to join the initiative. The organization will need up to $500 million by 2022 to research vaccines against diseases like Lassa fever or MERS, but also to develop a new platform that helps in building new vaccines when unknown viruses hit. Developing a serum costs between $50 million and $250 million.
Mr. Gates spoke to Handelsblatt about the threat of global pandemics, what CEPI will deliver and how the German government and start-ups figure into the mix.
Mr. Gates, your foundation has been active in fighting some of the biggest diseases in human history over the past decades. In your opinion, how close are we to the outbreak of a new pandemic?
Ever since the black plague in the Middle Ages, epidemics have been threatening us. The fact that people mix more, they travel more, means that the rate of spread of a respiratorily transmitted human infection would be quite rapid. I gave a TED talk where I showed a simulation of what a flu epidemic would be like. And here at Davos, in addition to the CEPI announcement, we’ll use the example of Ebola to show that if a vaccine had been available after 30 weeks, it would have provided a modest benefit; after 22 weeks, more of a benefit; and after 6 weeks, a pretty dramatic benefit. If you take a flu, which is over 100 times bigger if it happens to be quite fatal, then you can show a huge difference if you get the vaccine fairly quickly.
If you had to guess, which epidemic will be the biggest threat to humanity in the future?
The most likely is an unknown one we haven’t seen before. The one we know we have to be worried about is the flu, because it can mutate into forms that both spread a lot and are fatal. So far, since 1917, we’ve seen varieties that spread a lot and varieties that are fatal. Fortunately, we have not seen a variety that combines what was combined in the so-called Spanish Flu epidemic.