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By Roger Highfield on

How to beat the next pandemic in just 100 days

Roger Highfield discusses the $3.5 billion pandemic vaccine development plan of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, with its CEO, Richard Hatchett, at the launch of the Injecting Hope exhibition.

The Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Injecting Hope: The Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine, describes how several vaccines to curb the pandemic were developed in record time: it took just 326 days from release of the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the authorisation of the first COVID-19 vaccine so it could be rolled out to vaccination centres across the UK, including at the Science Museum itself.

A visitor with '2020 the Sphere that Changed the World' by Angela Palmer
A visitor with ‘2020 the Sphere that Changed the World’ by Angela Palmer in Injecting Hope at the Science Museum

Last night, at an event to mark the launch of the exhibition at Lates in the Science Museum, Dr Richard Hatchett (CEO of CEPI) told me how his organisation plans to help the world to cut that time from almost a year to around three months, no matter the kind of virus that emerges from animals to cause a future pandemic of ‘Disease X’.

‘The shockwaves of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reverberate,’ he said. ‘But the advances in vaccinology necessitated by this devastating disease, and which are so skilfully discussed in the Science Museum’s new Injecting Hope exhibition, have now created an opportunity for the world to beat pandemics once and for all.’

CEPI, the world’s largest vaccine development initiative, is a partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organizations.

In the case of COVID-19, its ambition to achieve a 100-day timeline would have seen a vaccine ready to use in mid-April instead of December 2020. This could have saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

Although I have discussed this plan before with Richard Hatchett, CEPI this week outlines in its What Will it Take report the details of the ‘paradigm shift’ that will be required to enable the world to deliver pandemic-beating vaccines in 100 Days.

Political support for its 100 Days Mission is strong: the UK and Germany, Italy, and Indonesia have set it as a top priority in their respective G7 and G20 presidencies over the past two years.

Last March, in the Science Museum, the Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit organised by CEPI and the UK government got pledges for over $1.6 billion for this mission.

Hatchett said last night that its $3.5 billion strategy – CEPI 2.0 – will kickstart and coordinate the work necessary over the next five years to help achieve the 100-day mission, focusing on five areas:

  1. Creating a library of prototype vaccines across the 26 or 27 virus families with the greatest pandemic potential so that they can be rapidly developed into vaccines against new pandemic threats. As shown by COVID-19, where vaccines were being developed against the related diseases MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronaviruses, having a prototype vaccine against Disease X can speed development.
  2. Establishing global clinical trials networks with pre-established processes and protocols, supported by a global clinical laboratory network
  3. Using AI and advanced data science to speed identification of markers that show how the immune system responds to Disease X to provide an early indication of the efficacy of prototype vaccines.
  4. Establishing a global network of vaccine manufacturers in or near areas at high risk of disease outbreaks to quickly make top-quality, safe, and effective new vaccines. Keeping these facilities commercially viable and able to make different vaccine types between pandemics will be key to their sustainability.
  5. Strengthening disease surveillance, sharing of viral sequences, as done by the COG-UK consortium in the case of COVID-19, and global early-warning systems.
A visitor looks at a vial of COVID-19 vaccine in Injecting Hope: The race for a COVID-19 vaccine
A visitor looks at a vial of COVID-19 vaccine in Injecting Hope: The race for a COVID-19 vaccine

The faster safe and effective vaccines are developed and deployed, the faster a looming pandemic can be contained and controlled, he said. Coupled with improved surveillance providing earlier detection and warning, and with swift and effective use of testing, social distancing and other ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’, CEPI’s 100 Days Mission, as embraced by the G7 and G20, would give the world a fighting shot to stop the next pandemic in its tracks.

If the world had delivered a vaccine in 100 days from the time when the COVID-19 viral sequences were released, explained Hatchett, a vaccine would have become available in April 2020, when there were cumulatively just over 2 million cases of COVID worldwide, rather than in December 2020, when there were almost 70 million.

He added that it is possible to imagine a future ‘in which pandemics no longer threaten our way of life.’

watch back the conversation:

Explore the science behind COVID-19 in our coronavirus blog series.