GSK vaccine R&D exec: Get to work now on the next emerging disease outbreak

GSK vaccine R&D head Ripley Ballou on Monday said emerging disease vaccine research should be proactive, predictably funded, platform-based, and with a dedicated and permanent infrastructure. Image: GSK via YouTube.

Caught off guard by deadly outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika, experts now say the current process of developing emerging-disease vaccines needs a shakeup. Here's what GlaxoSmithKline’s U.S. vaccine R&D head Ripley Ballou has in mind.

At the World Vaccine Congress in Washington, D.C., Monday, Ballou said developing vaccines without a strong commercial case requires predictable, ongoing funding and a dedicated, permanent infrastructure. To make sure new immunizations can be brought online quickly, development should focus on platform technology, rather than disease-by-disease work.

During an emergency is not the time to get started on vaccine development or to seek funding, Ballou said during a panel discussion at the meeting.

Speaking about platform technology, Ballou pointed out that scientists should ideally be able to “plug-and-play” different diseases to quickly create new vaccines in an emergency. That capability exists “today and is only going to get better,” he said.

The GSK exec took the stage on Monday alongside University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine emeritus professor Stanley Plotkin, Sabin Vaccine Institute president Peter Hotez and Sanaria CEO Stephen Hoffman. Together, the group discussed challenges and opportunities for protection against diseases that pose pandemic risks, but aren’t yet seen as commercially viable by Big Pharma.

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Their discussion comes on the heels of the creation of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global collaboration intended to respond to potential threats before an emergency. With more than $500 million in funding to get started, the group is in its “very earliest form,” but represents a “sea change” in the field, according to CEPI scientific advisory board member Plotkin.

GSK, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Sanofi and Takeda are supporting the group, which is initially targeting MERS-CoV, Lassa and Nipah viruses. In a partnership such as CEPI, Ballou said the global organization should provide funding for research while companies including GSK commit “in-kind” contributions such as testing and development expertise.

Despite the fact that CEPI has a roadmap of initial research, the diseases that worry Ballou the most “aren’t on the list because we don’t know about them yet,” he told the crowd.

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Multiple deadly outbreaks such as Ebola, MERS and Zika have made it clear to vaccine experts that a collaborative, shared-risk system would better address potential threats than a traditional research path.

During South Korea’s deadly MERS outbreak in 2015, scientists expressed frustration that there wasn’t a vaccine despite the fact that much was known about the virus. Both Ebola and Zika famously caught scientific communities off guard, causing thousands of deaths and devastating side effects.