Global warning system essential to beat future pandemics, says Cepi chief

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A “global early warning system” for dangerous viruses is essential to head off future pandemics and speed up vaccine development, says the head of an organisation charged with preventing such health crises.

Greater surveillance and co-operation are needed to flag what health experts call “disease X”, an infectious disease yet to emerge that has the potential to cause a pandemic, said Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi).

Rapid detection is crucial to Cepi’s central goal to speed the world’s response to emerging viruses and cut development times for new vaccines to just 100 days.

“We need a global early warning system for disease X that is built on strong, active and continuous surveillance capabilities,” Hatchett told a Nikkei-Financial Times conference in Tokyo on communicable diseases. “This enhanced surveillance must be as global and as comprehensive and as interconnected as possible.”

Hatchett’s call for an early warning system came shortly after a draft of the pandemic preparedness treaty, being negotiated at the World Health Organization, was sent to member states.

The leaked draft, seen by the Financial Times, includes measures to help scale up production during a global health crisis. But the pharmaceutical industry is resisting any measures that would force it to waive its patents.

Thomas Cueni, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said the private sector was able to develop new vaccines and treatments to tackle Covid-19 because of decades of investment in research and development. 

“It would be better to have no pandemic treaty than a bad pandemic treaty, which the draft circulated to member states clearly represents,” he said. “If adopted, the draft treaty would undermine both and leave us weaker ahead of the next pandemic than we were in December 2019, and we urge governments to make significant revisions to the current text.”

Some non-governmental organisations called for the accord to have more teeth. Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy co-lead for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said the current wording “contains too few obligations to ensure that government’s take these essential measures”.

The WHO aims to enact a pandemic treaty by May 2024.

Closer worldwide monitoring links with an initiative to prepare an international “vaccine library”, Hatchett said. This would contain the pharmacological building blocks for inoculations likely to be needed to counter any disease that might pose dangers on a pandemic scale.

“The core idea of a global vaccine library is to solve the critical challenges of vaccine design for a given genus or family of viruses in advance,” Hatchett said. “And to show that safe and effective vaccines employing such solutions can be delivered using the rapid response platforms available to us.”

Building such a library was a “huge task”, he added. Companies involved in the scheme would need to co-ordinate investments and share data when outbreaks of new diseases occurred.

Cepi, a partnership set up in 2017 between governments, charities and industry, has taken on a critical role since the Covid-19 pandemic. It has devised a $3.5bn five-year programme to produce vaccines that can pass initial clinical trials within 100 days of a pathogen being genetically sequenced and identified as a possible pandemic threat. That timeframe is much shorter than the 326 days it took for BioNTech/Pfizer’s jab to receive UK authorisation in December 2020.

Cepi’s partners include BioNTech, which developed the messenger RNA-based Covid vaccine, and the University of Oxford, developer of the low-cost jab manufactured by AstraZeneca.

Cepi is investing to expand networks of vaccine manufacturers in or near areas at high risk of disease outbreaks. It is also attempting to set up clinical trial systems in lower and middle income countries to enable rapid generation of efficacy and safety data for novel vaccines.

Hiroaki Ueno, president of Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, told the Tokyo conference: “We have to prepare for the next pandemic. Agility in the face of emergency is important.” Global warning system essential to beat future pandemics, says Cepi chief

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