The acute need to contain and control the ebola health and humanitarian crisis has captured the world’s attention.  It shines a light on the limits of the global community’s coordinated medical response and reveals pockets of preparedness: an experimental medicine here, a quarantine facility there and healthcare workers struggling in under-resourced and fragile health systems.  While we commend the commitment and collaboration between public health authorities, governments, pharmaceutical companies, infectious disease specialists, NGOs and relief organizations to aggressively address this urgent health need, we can all agree that we must get better at addressing these global health crises.

This will not be the last episode of its kind. If anything, ebola is a warning bell. We must move now to prevent and contain future epidemics, whether it ebola or the next emerging infectious disease.

While continuing to address the current outbreak with urgency, a sustained and coordinated global plan needs to be built to equip communities around the world for the next infectious disease. Along with real world execution, the plan should include preparedness efforts that begin long before an outbreak occurs.  Last week GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the National Institutes of Health announced we are working together on a potential ebola vaccine.  This vaccine candidate wasn’t developed in recent weeks, but is the result of several years of preparedness research conducted by vaccines manufacturers and the Department of Defense for biosecurity threats. The crisis in Africa has focused efforts now to accelerate clinical trials of the vaccine. Think how much progress could be made if we continue to have a central point to coordinate funding from public and private sectors and if new business models and policy frameworks are explored.

A lack of designated biosecurity priorities and funding for preparedness that is splintered between government agencies hinders the US response to emerging threats to public health.   Despite these challenges, new approaches are being tested. For example, the US’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) agreed last year to help fund GSK’s antibacterial portfolio, an area of research many other biopharmaceutical companies shy away from during a time when antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming increasingly and alarmingly common.  This marks the first time that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has partnered with a private healthcare company to flexibly fund an entire portfolio of potential medicines instead of a single medicine. When considering the ramifications of no new treatments to combat increasingly resistant bacterial infections, innovative solutions become one of our only options.

When there is agreement on priorities, the public and private sectors can increasingly embrace creative ways to scale up responses to potential threats. The Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (CIADM) at Texas A&M is one of three national centers that, through a public-private partnership with the U.S. government, is designated to lead pandemic preparedness activity. Within the CIADM, companies such as GSK provide vaccines manufacturing technical expertise for more nimble and integrated development and manufacturing of treatments to address emerging diseases. Multiple groups share in the operational costs of the center’s facilities, including a new, US-based vaccines facility that, when complete, could make available a significant number of pandemic vaccine doses within a short period of time in the event of a pandemic. 

Historically, pharmaceutical companies have been accused of focusing their research on diseases which mostly affect people in developed markets where they can recover their investment.  In actuality, we have shifted to a global approach and are actively addressing global health challenges. The biopharmaceutical industry has over 160 R&D projects for neglected diseases in developing countries and we are ensuring new medicines reach communities in the developing world faster. Vaccines are a good example. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it typically took 20-30 years after a vaccine was approved and used in the US and Europe to reach developing countries. Public-private partnerships such as the GAVI Alliance helped accelerate that process. We delivered vaccines against rotavirus and pneumonia to developing countries within 2 years of launch and those same partnerships help deliver vaccines for which there is a significant public health need, but no commercial potential, such as the malaria vaccine that GSK filed last month with European regulators. Today, we are working with the National Institute of Health, WHO and others to accelerate development of an ebola vaccine. And we are committed to additional research of this kind.

Public health preparedness is a long-term endeavor that requires difficult decisions about the interventions needed and how they are prioritized. Individual, innovative approaches cannot stand alone.  A global public-private forum for these discussions is needed now if we truly want healthy communities at home and around the world that are more resilient and prepared to handle these challenges. This forum could agree on priorities, coordinate funding, lead the development of new business models and spread best practice policies that will prepare us better for the next health crisis.

We hear the warning bell.  Who is ready to heed the call?

Altenpohl is vice president of Public Policy at GSK.