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As concerns mount over pandemics, GlaxoSmithKline hopes to reach an agreement with global health experts to discover and develop vaccines for various infectious diseases in exchange for financing from a new international funding mechanism, according to a company official.

Over the past several months, the drug maker has approached various agencies and governments about the arrangement, which would not require Glaxo to conduct late-stage work or to manufacture vaccines, but would allow the company to retain its rights to any proprietary technologies used in development.

“We are ready to commit, providing there is funding for it,” Moncef Slaoui, chairman of the Glaxo vaccines business, told us. “Things are progressing. It’s in the oven and almost cooked. There’s a lot of activity.” He added that Glaxo has approached the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and several governments, including the United States.


Whether an agreement can be reached is unclear. Among the details to be reviewed are funding levels and which entities might provide funding. Those funding the work would likely determine which vaccine candidates and platform technologies are used to develop a product, according to sources.

A spokeswoman for the WHO, which released a list of infectious diseases worth targeting and plans to publish a “blueprint for action” in May, wrote us that “we are reaching out to stakeholders across the entire globe to come forward with ideas and sustainable funding that can be quickly activated.”


Robin Robinson, who heads the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said the agency is familiar with the proposal, but declined to comment specifically on any involvement. However, BARDA is currently soliciting proposals for vaccines and other products to thwart pandemics. “This and other concepts are great first steps toward having first responder capabilities to [deal with] serious and urgent threats that are popping up every year,” he said.

Others familiar with the proposal said it is expected to be discussed this week at the World Economic Forum that is being held in Davos, Switzerland. “This will depend on specifics — who is providing the funds and if it’s a contractual arrangement with Glaxo or others,” said Stanley Plotkin, former medical and scientific director at Sanofi Pasteur and a consultant to many vaccine makers. “The situation is still fluid. I think we’ll know more after Davos.”

The Glaxo initiative comes amid increasing calls for an international fund to combat pandemics. Just last week, global health experts convened by the US National Academy of Medicine urged governments, corporations, and foundations to provide $4.5 billion to fund to enhance prevention, detection, and preparedness. Of that, the report said $1 billion should be devoted to developing vaccines and drugs.

And last summer, Plotkin and two other vaccines experts wrote an essay in The New England Journal of Medicine proposing a $2 billion fund to provide industry and institutional researchers with money to undertake vaccine discovery and development. Both of these proposals cited the recent experience with Ebola, in which governments were caught by surprise by the outbreak, as reason to act quickly.

Along with Merck and Sanofi, Glaxo is one of the world’s largest producers of vaccines for a variety of ailments. But the pharmaceutical industry, in general, has been regularly criticized for failing to invest in vaccines for diseases that affect a wide swath people in poorer countries where governments and patients are unable to afford the medications.

Indeed, Adel Mahmoud, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University and former head of vaccines at Merck who was another author of the NEJM essay, said their own proposal was based on the recognition that companies must think twice before investing in products where returns may be modest. “This is why a fund is needed,” he said.

Slaoui acknowledged that the profit motive is a difficult barrier to breach, despite growing public health needs. “The only way the vaccines business can be sustained is to sell vaccines at higher [price] for those can sustain it,” he said. “It’s a profitable business if you have the right balance in the US and elsewhere. … But this is not a financial strategy. There is a public health commitment.”

The company stands to gain more than goodwill, however, if its proposal becomes reality, because Glaxo does not expect to share its intellectual property with others.

“It’s not all altruism,” said BARDA’s Robinson. “They would have the opportunity to develop their platform technologies and gain experience needed for making their own vaccines that have commercial value.”