COVID variants won't wait — we need to fund better vaccines ASAP

COVID variants won't wait — we need to fund better vaccines ASAP
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It has been more than five months since the American Rescue Plan Act was passed by Congress, providing $11.6 billion for the global response to COVID-19. This legislation made clear that a portion of the funding would be dedicated to a multilateral vaccine development partnership for epidemic preparedness. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global public-private partnership launched in 2017, was designed precisely for that purpose. Established to advance vaccines for pathogens with epidemic potential, CEPI was poised for action at the outset of the pandemic, joining the international COVAX vaccine partnership as its research and development focused arm. 

Today, CEPI is working to develop the next generation of vaccines needed to protect Americans and the rest of the world from the rapidly evolving coronavirus threatening to evade the protection of current vaccines. My organization, PATH, is working in partnership with CEPI to enhance the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

But this coalition — which has wide support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress — has yet to receive any American Rescue Plan Act funding. 

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The reason for this delay is unclear. The delta variant will not be the last to emerge and waiting until the next variant arrives before undertaking critical preparatory efforts will be too late. In a race against time, research should be among the first investments made, not the last. 

Two components are required to ensure COVID-19 vaccines can help stop the pandemic. First, we must increase global access to existing vaccines to stop the spread before more new mutations surface. Second, we must develop new vaccines — such as boosters and new variant-proof COVID vaccines or even universal coronavirus vaccines that would protect against SARS-CoV-2 and similar infectious threats in the future — that are easier to deliver globally.

Around the world, as much as 95 percent of the populations in some countries are unvaccinated due to limited supply. With global vaccine coverage levels far short of herd immunity, a window of opportunity has opened for new variants to spread faster and with greater consequence. With these delays, we run the risk that today’s vaccines may not be as effective by the time vaccination efforts scale up in many countries. We have the capacity to develop vaccines that can get ahead of variants and be used in a wider variety of settings to reach more people, but without the critical investment in CEPI intended by lawmakers, the progress we’ve made to date remains at risk.

Alongside earlier contributions for U.S. health security efforts, including support to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, U.S. investment in CEPI would both accelerate the speed with which vaccines are adapted to protect against emerging variants and make existing vaccines go further. Global supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses is still severely limited and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Research to optimize what we have, such as studying the impact of mixing and matching different vaccines, cannot wait and is an important strategy as we race to expand global access and coverage. CEPI is critical to ensuring we achieve the highest level of protection from the virus with the right combination of doses and ability to better reach vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and the immunocompromised. 

Our global counterparts understand what is at stake and why funding CEPI is imperative. Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the European Commission have all made significant contributions in recent months. The U.S. must join the world in funding a global scientific response

The clock is ticking and the exit strategy for this pandemic is growing more elusive. Failure to control the virus anywhere threatens human health everywhere. The Biden administration must follow through on Congress’ directive to fund CEPI and ensure the development of the vaccines we need — not only to control COVID-19 in the U.S. today, but to bring an end to the pandemic globally.

Heather Ignatius oversees PATH’s Advocacy and Public Policy Department and its work to influence global priority setting, enact policies and secure public resource allocation to bring evidence-based innovations and interventions to scale. Twitter: @HeatherIgnatius.