PHOTO: GORODENKOFF/SHUTTERSTOCK
PHOTO: GORODENKOFF/SHUTTERSTOCK

Drugs, vaccines and rapid diagnostics to treat, prevent and respond to COVID-19 are the only decisive and long-term solutions to the pandemic, but currently, there are no antivirals or immunotherapies available to prevent or treat the disease. And though governments, philanthropy, and other givers have by now spent or committed billions to protect people and stamp out the disease, astoundingly there is still an immediate global funding shortfall—in the billions—needed to jumpstart the development of these medicines and technologies.

According to the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an organization convened by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, $8 billion more is needed by the end of April to ensure that work on vaccines, treatments, and testing gets underway. Based on that estimate, the Wellcome Trust this week launched an initiative called COVID-Zero designed to raise that money from businesses around the world. Wellcome’s message to business is that any contributions should be seen as a smart investment, one that can not only save lives but accelerate the return of a normally functioning global economy.

Accelerating the Drug Development Pipeline

“Scientists globally are working at tremendous pace to develop vaccines, test existing drugs that could treat COVID-19 and improve diagnostic tests,” Wellcome Trust wrote in its announcement of the new initiative. But those scientists are burning through funds fast, and any interruption in funding and research could delay or derail clinical trials and regulatory approval. Such delays are not something the world can afford right now.

Wellcome says the $8 billion would go to organizations coordinating global research and development, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator recently announced by the Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard, and The Foundation for New Innovative Diagnostics (FIND). Funds would also go to the WHO Solidarity Fund.

Another timely award came from the Athens, Greece-based Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which committed $100 million in response to the coronavirus crisis, focused on research for treatments, testing, and prevention. The sum included an emergency award of $3 million to Rockefeller University in New York to accelerate COVID-19 drug and vaccine research.

Gates to the Rescue?

Bill Gates recognized the huge resources needed to beat COVID-19 in his recent comments on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah that the Gates Foundation would commit billions to ensure that new drugs are not only developed as quickly as possible but as well that manufacture can scale quickly to meet global needs. The foundation has since clarified those remarks, saying in a statement to Recode: “The foundation is exploring using its catalytic funding to get the process moving, recognizing that any large-scale projects will require multilateral and/or government funding.” In talking to Noah, Gates said: “Our foundation is trying to be as helpful in a very constructive way as possible. And that’s why I’ve talked to the head of the pharmaceutical companies. We’ve talked to a lot of the agencies, including—CDC and NIH about how we work together on the vaccines and the drugs.”

It’s worth noting that Bill Gates controls a personal fortune of more than $100 billion in addition to the resources of the foundation he co-chairs with Melinda. If he wants to bankroll a huge biomedical research push to beat coronavirus, he can easily afford to do so.

Writing in the Washington Post, Gates said: “To bring the disease to an end, we’ll need a safe and effective vaccine. If we do everything right, we could have one in less than 18 months—about the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed. But creating a vaccine is only half the battle. To protect Americans and people around the world, we’ll need to manufacture billions of doses.” In his discussion of a role for his foundation on Trevor Noah’s show, he talked about providing funding to build out factory capacity for the top seven vaccine candidates—even though only one or two are likely to be approved for use—the better to ramp up production quickly. “Our early money can accelerate things,” he said. In remarks to CNN, Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzeman said about the urgent race for a vaccine: “It’s a daunting timetable.”

Speeding the science is overtly behind the Gates Foundation’s recent establishment of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a global effort stated by Gates, Wellcome and Mastercard. In the weeks since its announcement, other funders have promised funding, including $25 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The therapeutics accelerator has started to award grants to scientists to fund clinical trials, with $20 million to three institutions: the University of Washington, the University of Oxford, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

As Bill Gates pointed out, vaccine and drug development do not happen quickly, and the world can’t miss opportunities to get these medical solutions into the clinical research and approval pipeline as soon as possible.

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