You won’t see many headlines about the World Health Organization’s decision today to endorse a new Japanese encephalitis vaccine. That’s too bad, because there’s a powerful story here about the tremendous progress the world is making to save and improve the lives of the world’s poorest.
Japanese encephalitis kills about 15,000 people, mainly children, every year. Tens of thousands more are left with permanent brain damage, resulting in paralysis and seizures. Some are unable to speak.
There is no effective treatment for Japanese encephalitis. It’s spread by mosquitoes, which makes it difficult to control. And for years, the only available vaccine was too impractical to use in poor countries, as well as too expensive—on the order of $250 or more. That’s why so many people can suffer from a disease that people in rich countries have never even heard of.
This is a problem that I see again and again in global health. Innovation for the world’s poorest lags behind the needs of the rich world. We’re more likely to see new investments in the fight against heart disease, for example, than a disease like Japanese encephalitis. I’m all for working on heart disease, but I don’t think we should ignore terrible diseases just because they only affect the poor.
Two partners came together to fill this gap for Japanese encephalitis: PATH, a nonprofit and foundation grantee in Seattle, and China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a leading vaccine manufacturer in China.
Their story starts ten years ago, when PATH started looking for the best way to develop an affordable, easy-to-use vaccine. PATH discovered that one country had already solved this problem: China. The Chinese had vaccinated more than 200 million children with their own very affordable vaccine. But it was virtually unknown outside the country.
PATH set out to change that. They joined with Asian governments, the vaccine manufacturer, and the WHO to make China’s vaccine available to millions more children. Since 2006, it has been licensed for use in 10 countries outside China and has reached more than 150 million people.
Today, China’s vaccine reached another milestone – WHO prequalification – which will enable millions more children to be protected from the disease. This designation means that the vaccine has met WHO’s rigorous standards for quality, safety and efficacy. It should increase demand and financing for the vaccine, driving down its cost: The new vaccine is expected to be available for around 30 cents a dose, which is nearly 1/1000th of the price of the original vaccine.
What’s especially exciting about the today’s announcement is the opportunity it creates for China to become a leader in creating great vaccines for the world. CNBG is the first Chinese manufacturer to produce a WHO prequalified vaccine. And I hope it will not be the last. CNBG is already helping other vaccine manufacturers learn from its experience with Japanese encephalitis.
While today’s announcement may not make the news, it’s worth celebrating. Millions of people will now be protected from this terrible disease. It also serves as a reminder that there’s still more work to be done to protect the poorest against other neglected diseases. We need more innovative manufacturers like CNBG, creative partners like PATH, and more generous donors to join this cause. We can bring the world closer to the day when all children, no matter where they live, will have access to lifesaving vaccines. That’s a headline we should all hope to see.