This year marks a century since the 1918 “Spanish flu” swept across the world, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people and infecting one quarter of the world’s population. Despite the medical advancements and innovations of the past 100 years, the world remains unprepared for when, not if, the next influenza pandemic emerges.
The new $12 million Ending the Pandemic Threat: A Grand Challenge for Universal Influenza Vaccine Development from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lucy and Larry Page is an important and necessary step intended to spark innovative ideas toward finding a game-changing solution to end the threat of flu. The Grand Challenge is exactly that—a challenge to all to bring their ideas to the table to seek a solution to the looming threat of an influenza pandemic. Unlike more traditional requests that target the usual suspects of the scientific elite who have built a career studying influenza, this challenge is calling for orthogonal approaches to problem solving at the intersections of disciplines where innovations so often come from.
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Ongoing research to fill in the many scientific gaps is critical. Research that is underway with support from public funds in the United States and abroad by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the European Commission and various philanthropic organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust as well as by industry, the biotechnology sector and venture capital must continue. And Congress deserves credit to ensure that this science is advanced. But new research strategies, collaborations and novel and even revolutionary approaches are required.
The Gates Foundation and Page Family are right to encourage the world’s best thinkers across a variety of disciplines beyond the traditional flu community to join the quest. It’s the nature of science to take one step at a time, but we should also keep in mind that unexpected insights can spark innovation. Science history is filled with tales of unexpected discovery and strange bedfellows. The next great idea could come from anywhere. Given the risk of a global pandemic, this investment isn’t high risk, it’s necessary and we all look forward to seeing the ideas that might come from areas of science that we previously never thought to ask.
Today most routine childhood vaccines are more than 90 percent effective, yet this season’s flu vaccine was only 36 percent effective. A universal flu vaccine that is as safe, effective, affordable and widely used as our childhood vaccines, which have erased diseases that used to be a part of every child’s life, could make flu a distant memory. Vaccine development—particularly for a complex virus like influenza—is challenging. But this shared global quest is essential to improve—and save—the lives of millions of people around the world.
This Grand Challenge is being launched during the centenary year of the 1918 flu pandemic, with the goal of identifying novel, transformative concepts that would lead to development of a truly universal flu vaccine. Such a vaccine would alleviate the need for annual seasonal influenza vaccination campaigns and would prepare the world for the next influenza pandemic.
Alongside independent efforts such as the Grand Challenge, Sabin has embarked on a three-year initiative to help move the world closer to ending the threat of flu. Our work will focus on fostering innovative approaches from diverse disciplines to accelerate the development of a universal flu vaccine. We will be an innovation broker, building bridges, creating networks and inviting disruptive thinkers to the table to explore new angles that complement, and challenge, traditional biomedical research in order to spur the next breakthrough.
This year’s influenza season is a stark reminder of just how important this work is to remove the threat of influenza—seasonal and pandemic—forever.
(Learn more about Sabin’s flu work.)
Bruce Gellin, M.D., M.P.H., is president of global immunization and lead on influenza efforts at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington, D.C.