Funder’s scientists talk about Covid-19 lessons the world can draw on for the future
Four experts from one of the world’s largest medical research charities have outlined the Covid-19 lessons of the past year with a focus on how the R&D response to epidemics could improve in future.
Their views feature in a statement issued on 18 December by the Wellcome Trust, one of the key global funders of disease research, which has a yearly £1 billion R&D investment portfolio.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated 2020 and, the experts say, has highlighted the need for quick and global R&D responses that can develop and deliver therapies and vaccines for emerging diseases.
Vaccines and trials
“This has been such a difficult year for so many of us,” said Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at Wellcome. “What shines through for me is the astonishing speed of vaccine development, which I think will shape the entire field of global health for years to come. The remarkable advances we have made this year are testament to preparation, pushing boundaries and, above all else, global collaboration.”
He added that the speed “is evidence of what is possible when we recruit volunteers, start trials and begin manufacturing in parallel, at scale and at financial risk. I’m excited when I think about what may be possible in future through the advances we have made this year.”
Weller sounded a note of optimism for the year ahead. “As we head into 2021, the path is a lot brighter at this point than I could have imagined just a few months ago. Vaccines, along with effective tests and treatments, but most importantly, global collaboration, will help us overcome Covid-19. If we keep up this momentum, we will bring this pandemic to an end everywhere, saving more lives more quickly.”
But he also warned against complacency, because “to vaccinate the entire world and end this pandemic, we will need more vaccines” and “though the results we have seen so far are highly encouraging, this is not enough for us to gain control of this pandemic”.
Weller called for further research into vaccines’ potential to prevent transmission and how long they provide protection, as well for “urgent investment” into manufacturing existing and developing new vaccines. “It is vital this continues at the same scale and at the same speed as we have seen during the course of 2020.”
Nick Cammack, Covid-19 therapeutics lead at Wellcome, also highlighted the importance of collaboration and speed in developing solutions to Covid-19.
“The speed of discovery has been phenomenal,” he said of research to develop drugs against Covid-19. “Had the major global treatment trials, Solidarity and Recovery, not been set up in a matter of weeks, using a model that allows for multiple candidates to be tested at once, we would not have found a life-saving drug in dexamethasone by June.”
But he highlighted that the “the deficit of effective treatments remains deeply concerning”.
“Although the first vaccines are on the horizon, we must keep up the momentum on treatments in 2021. Even with a vaccine, treatments are urgently needed to reduce further deaths and suffering, and to keep pressure off health systems around the world.”
He highlighted the promise the trials of Covid-19 monoclonal antibodies, which “hold great promise” for 2021 but are “traditionally the most expensive treatments in the world”.
“So a key priority will be making sure people in low-and-middle-income countries can also access them,” he said. “To do that, the ACT-Accelerator Therapeutics Pillar requires a total of $6.6bn (£5bn), with over $500 million (£377m) still needed immediately.”
Lindsay Keir, innovations partner at Wellcome, said the lessons of 2020 such as “developing vaccines and new therapies like monoclonal antibodies in record time” should also be applied to other diseases going forward.
“We must learn from this and see how the accelerated time frame could be used in a more routine way for other diseases,” she said, noting the need for a catalogue of weaknesses in the innovation model that should be addressed.
“Even with the successes of new vaccines and treatments being made and tested at breakneck speed, there were still weaknesses exposed in our systems. A major weakness is our limited capacity to make monoclonal antibodies globally. We must catalogue these gaps and invest to improve this situation, so we don’t face the same barriers again next time.”
Josie Golding, epidemic preparedness lead at Wellcome, said the pandemic has taught us a lot about preparedness for disease outbreaks—“both in terms of what has worked well and where the gaps still remain”—and that it is important to “maintain this level of focus on epidemic preparedness and response once the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control”.
“If we are to minimise the effects of future epidemics, we must move away from a cycle of panic and neglect and refocus our attention on epidemic preparedness,” she said. “Let’s ensure we lay a strong foundation for science to step in and respond flexibly when epidemic threats emerge—be it fostering strong research collaborations, establishing funding bodies like Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and continuing international coordination and dialogue.”
As examples of what needs doing, she lists putting in place improved infrastructure to run larger international studies, and to ensure that data gathered from larger studies is made available quickly and transparently to all.
“Ultimately the world will face future epidemics of known and unknown infectious diseases,” Golding said. “We must be better prepared for these than we were for Covid-19.”