Bill Gates has a message to the world: Those aiming for the holy grail of influenza research—a universal flu vaccine—now have new funding up for grabs.
Just step up for a so-called Grand Challenge launched by a partnership between the Microsoft co-founder’s charity Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google co-founder Larry Page and his family. With $12 million in seed money, the duo hope to bridge the funding “valley of death” between novel concepts and clinical trial-ready products.
Individual grants will range from $250,000 to $2 million over two years. If animal proof-of-concept data show promise, an additional $10 million for in-human studies could follow. The clock is ticking, though, because the plan aims to move potential candidates into human testing by 2021.
Creative thinking and unconventional approaches are key. The project encourages scientists from different disciplines beyond the traditional flu community to work together. True to Gates and Page's technology feats, they're calling out computational biology, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other tech as aids to the research.
“The goal is to encourage bold thinking by the world’s best scientists across disciplines, including those new to the field,” said Gates at the New England Journal of Medicine’s annual Shattuck Lecture in Boston.
To call it a “challenge,” the initiative isn’t looking at the low-hanging fruit of small changes to current seasonal flu vaccines—or vaccines aiming to cover multiple influenza strains, which is the way many define a "universal” flu vaccine. Instead, the challenge explicitly states that it's fostering vaccines that protect against all subtypes of circulating and emerging influenza A and influenza B viruses for at least three to five years.
Indeed, medical science has advanced, but the world isn’t making much progress in pandemic preparedness, said Gates, in a rare change of tone for the typically optimistic billionaire philanthropist.
“This should concern us all, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that there will be another deadly global pandemic,” he said.
The year 2018 marks the centennial of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people. Using a simulation put together by the Institute for Disease Modeling, Gates warned that a pandemic today involving a similarly contagious and lethal airborne pathogen would kill 33 million people within the first six months.
Lackluster performance from seasonal flu shots in recent years have spurred growing interest in universal vaccines. The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently unveiled a strategic plan for research efforts in the field.
And a new bill introduced by several senators calls for $1 billion over the next five years for development of a universal flu vaccine. In fact, both the Gates Foundation and Page’s Alphabet are already involved, having put down money for private developers CureVac and Vaccitech, respectively.
Outside of preparedness for a flu pandemic, the Gates Foundation is supporting the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a public-private partnership initiated last year in the wake of the Ebola and Zika crises. It aims to fund vaccine development before an epidemic hits. The initiative has granted contracts to Themis and Inovio to work on vaccines against Lassa fever and MERS, and is looking to fund platforms that could devise vaccines quickly when new pathogens arise.