No category of medical innovations has saved the lives of more children than vaccines. In the 17 years since its founding, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has prevented an estimated 10 million deaths by immunizing children in low-income countries.
That’s why the Gates Foundation is engaging with CureVac AG and BioNTech, two German biotechnology companies that are pioneering new ways to make vaccines. They use the body’s own administered mRNA, the molecules that turn genetic information into proteins.
The implications of mRNA vaccines are enormous: They could be developed quickly, perhaps fast enough to respond to a serious infectious disease outbreak like Ebola. Plus, they would be cheap.
Right now, companies must spend hundreds of millions — even billions — of euros to develop vaccines and build plants to make them. The process can take many years, and plants for one vaccine cannot be repurposed to make other vaccines. With mRNA vaccines, one plant could make multiple vaccines. It might even be possible to make vaccines in a machine the size of a refrigerator.
Just a few years ago, all of this was hypothetical. Over the past several months, though, we’ve started to see results with the successful introduction of mRNA vaccines in small and large animals. And last year, while testing mRNA vaccines for flu and rabies, researchers found that mRNA vaccines could be much more durable than the standard versions.
But what’s most exciting about these breakthroughs is that they aren’t happening in isolation.
The Gates Foundation recently announced that we’re opening a new European office in Berlin, and we are holding our annual Grand Challenges meeting in Germany’s capital city as well. Neither the time nor the place is a coincidence.
Germany is an emerging leader in global health. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the World Health Summit, an annual convening of global health leaders hosted by Germany with the co-sponsorship of other European Union nations.
And we are living in a moment when researchers are making quantum leaps in the life sciences. Many of those leaps — like the breakthroughs pursued by CureVac and BioNTech — could happen in Germany.
In just the past year or so, researchers have announced the development of what could emerge as the first safe and effective tuberculosis vaccine in a century; scientists have started to explore whether we can prevent the spread of dengue fever by introducing a certain bacterium to the microbiome of mosquitoes; and health workers have discovered that a 40-year-old drug, azithromycin, can radically reduce child mortality if we give it to kids in high-mortality areas.
Of course, this research is still in its early stages. The results of the new TB vaccine are preliminary, and we will not have formal results of the dengue study until next year. But if there is a nation well-suited to build on this science — and to ensure that it gets out of the lab and helps the world — it is Germany.
Germany has more math and science PhDs per capita than almost any other country. More important, the German government has signaled that it wants to continue engaging with the fight against poverty and disease while other nations have started to retreat.
Now is the time to build on that work. After all, the creation of life-saving interventions doesn’t happen overnight. Innovations only get to people in need because governments and institutions support the first and last miles of the innovation process. They fund basic research and product development, and then they help deliver the results.
Germany has a chance to lead in this respect and lift millions of people out of poverty and disease in the process.