This May Be the Greatest Threat Facing Humanity. What Can Philanthropy Do About It?


If you start to think the unthinkable, and ponder what catastrophic events could seriously threaten civilization, it won't be long before you focus in on the risk of a global pandemic. Indeed, as we've reported, those funding outfits that travel this dark path—first Jeff Skoll's Global Threats Fund; and then the Open Philanthropy Project, backed by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna—have both put pandemics near the very top of their lists of threats to counter, launching new work in this space. 

Related: Catastrophic Global Risks: A Silicon Valley Funder Thinks the Unthinkable

In general, though, not many funders tend dwell in the world of worst-case scenarios, and there's not been a lot of grantmaking around biosecurity. But the Ebola outbreak served as an important wakeup call. If it taught us anything, it was that the world was woefully underprepared in its ability to contain such a fast-moving and deadly virus. The Ebola epidemic spotlighted the fact that so much more needs to be done toward the prevention, response, and containment of the next disease outbreak.

To many in the global health community, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, such an outbreak will occur. To get ahead of that curve, and act on the lessons of Ebola, the public and private sectors have now mobilized to form a powerful global health coalition that aims to prevent future disease outbreaks from reaching epidemic proportions.

This week, at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, key stakeholders including governments, foundations, international organizations, NGOs, and the pharmaceutical industry, announced the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI.

CEPI was founded by the governments of India and Norway, the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum. The coalition’s initial $460 million investment is led by the governments of Germany, Japan and Norway, along with Gates and Wellcome. These initial investments get CEPI halfway to its $1 billion total funding goal. (As an aside, this effort is yet another example of the growing alliance between Gates and Wellcome, the two largest foundations in the world, which we wrote about last week.) 

RelatedA Powerhouse Alliance: When the World's Two Largest Foundations Join Forces

The aim of the coalition, according to the press release, is to develop “safe and effective vaccines against known infectious disease threats that could be deployed rapidly to contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies.” For now, CEPI is targeting the MERS-CoV, Lassa, and Nipah viruses while also exploring additional support for vaccines against strains of the Ebola, Marburg and Zika viruses.

Related: Zeroing in on Unmet Global Health Needs: Why Wellcome Trust is Looking at Lassa

CEPI is taking a proactive, “just-in-case” strategy that leverages existing adaptable vaccine technologies while pursuing innovative vaccine R&D. Used in concert, this science could be applied toward the rapid development and response to previously unknown pathogens. Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust, explains further, saying, “Vaccines can protect us, but we’ve done too little to develop them as an insurance policy. CEPI is our chance to learn the lessons of recent tragedies and outsmart epidemics with new vaccine defenses.”

CEPI, according to Peter Piot, director of the school and professor of global health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, “was born out of the last Ebola epidemic,” and draws from the many lessons learned from that global health crisis. One being that the world at large has to “do a better job than last time,” according to Piot, and the other being the urgent need for vaccine development for diseases that have strong epidemic potential, but for which there is currently no market.

When there is no existing market for vaccines against diseases with strong epidemic potential such as Ebola, research and progress tends to stall. To overcome this hurdle, CEPI will act as a new system allowing for more rapid vaccine development to contain disease outbreaks at their early stages, save lives, and prevent full-blown outbreaks.

The creation of CEPI is a game changer when it comes to pandemics and biosecurity. There's never been an effort on this scale, or with this kind of focus on the critical role of vaccine development, the most expensive part of the preparedness challenge. 

Maybe, when the next outbreak comes, the world will be ready.