A new organization that is aiming to better prepare the world to respond to emerging infectious disease outbreaks has set its sights on its first targets.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations announced Wednesday it will fund research to develop vaccines against three animal viruses with the potential to cause large outbreaks in people — the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, the Nipah virus, and the virus that causes Lassa fever.
All three are on a list of pathogens the World Health Organization has designated as needing urgent research and product development work.
The announcement was made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was at that annual gathering last year that the creation of CEPI, as the organization is called, was announced.
The organization was formed as a response to the West African Ebola outbreak, in which more than 28,000 were infected with the virus and more than 11,000 died. The outbreak could have been stopped far sooner if the experimental vaccines that laboratories had been working on for years were ready for use. But the lack of a paying market for Ebola vaccine had stymied their development.
Dr. Peter Piot, dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and cochair of one of the Ebola post-mortem reports, said the goal of CEPI is to try to prevent a repeat of that dreadful epidemic, calling it “the least we owe to the 11,000 people who died from Ebola.”
“The aim is really to stimulate the development of vaccines against microbes — mostly viruses — that have epidemic potential where there is no market incentive,” Piot said during a briefing.
The organization has already received $460 million in funding — nearly halfway to the $1 billion it estimates it will need in its first five years — from the governments of Germany, Japan, and Norway, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust. Those last three funders, along with the government of India and the World Economic Forum, are the driving forces behind the project.
Nancy Lee, the policy program manager of the Wellcome Trust, said CEPI is putting out a call to researchers to submit funding applications. It expects to issue the first grants by mid-2017.
MERS is a camel virus that has been infecting people sporadically in countries on the Arabian Peninsula for the past several years. A person infected with the virus who traveled to Seoul, South Korea, triggered a large outbreak there in 2015. Nearly 200 people were infected and three dozen died.
The Nipah virus is a bat virus that can infect pigs and pass from pigs to people. Outbreaks have occurred in Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Bangladesh.
Lassa fever is a virus spread by a type of rat in West Africa. It’s estimated there are between 100,000 and 300,000 cases there every year, but surveillance for the disease is poor and estimates are crude. Most people have mild disease, but about 20 percent develop severe illness, including hemorrhaging, and about 1 percent of infected people die.