Dr. Charlie Weller is head of vaccines at the global charitable foundation Wellcome. We interviewed her as part of our #PassTheMic series. Here’s some of what she had to say.
With a disease like COVID-19, it doesn’t see borders. It doesn’t see different countries or types of people.
In 2019, no one knew anything about COVID, so these types of diseases really need a global solution. We’re seeing the amazing progress that certain countries are making, like Australia and New Zealand, but this still requires quite significant restrictions on what we call normal life.
We really see that the exit strategy for this pandemic is through science and having the tools that we need to bring this to an end.
When I talk about science being the exit strategy, this isn’t just about vaccines. It’s about having a holistic approach. We need as many tools as possible to try to bring this pandemic to an end. That means vaccines to protect people, therapeutics to cure people, and also diagnostics to understand who is infected and where and how it’s spreading.
We need global collaboration in order to develop these tools. If we don’t we could end up wasting time and energy, with duplication of effort and wasted money.
Priorities and challenges for a vaccine
Thinking about vaccines specifically, if countries move to an individual approach, to secure domestic access for future vaccines, the concern is that it would lead to unequal allocation of the vaccine. What that means is those who have the money will be able to access vaccines, but those who don’t, like lower to middle-income countries, won’t be able to.
However, there’s a bit of a caveat to this, because at this moment we’ve got over 150 vaccines in development, but we don’t know which ones are going to be effective. This is because of the speed we are trying to develop a vaccine (within 12-18 months, when it can normally take more than 10 years).
One of the ways of doing that is instead of waiting until we know which vaccine is effective to build a manufacturing facility, we’re making that manufacturing capability ready now. So, if the country takes an individual approach, they’ll be trying to work out now which vaccine groups are going to be the effectively successful ones at a time where we don’t have any information. What happens if they’re wrong, if they pick five different vaccines and all of them end up failing? That country is going to be in a place where it’s spent a lot of money and doesn’t necessarily have access to any vaccines at all.
So, a different approach would be to work with other countries, pool those risks, have a programme in a portfolio across multiple different countries, sharing that financial risk but also sharing the benefits.
The other piece of this is the scale. We’ve never had to develop a vaccine to this scale in anyone’s lifetime. There’s no road map for it. We talk about billions of doses normally with a vaccine that’s targeted to a few countries or for certain age groups. But here we’re looking at a vaccine potentially for everyone, and we’ve not had that challenge before.
My main priority is making sure that there is sufficient financing for research and to have a variety of different approaches to vaccine development.
My second priority is ensuring that we’re not just having clinical trials in high-income countries, but making sure that we understand whether these vaccines are as effective for low-income countries, people living with infection, and different age groups.
Something that I’m excited about is that we’ve got a variety of different vaccine approaches that are in development now. Science has really moved on in the last three to five years. I don’t think outside COVID there would be the impetus to try some of these new technologies in such a coordinated way. So it’s exciting to see the jump in science innovation that could help for future epidemics.
I’m most optimistic about the speed at which researchers around the world have learned about this virus and shared information. It gives me optimism that we will be able to bring this pandemic to an end.
I think the discussion that is ongoing around the world, especially with the next generation coming through education, is that there is a real positivity around the way in which science, vaccines, and epidemics are talked about. We might have a new generation of children wanting to be scientists.
These excerpts from the interview were edited for length and clarity.
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