The grant to PATH will accelerate work on vaccines against diseases that still take a deadly toll around the world — particularly on children.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation often gets attention for flashy projects like reinventing the toilet, building a better condom and genetically engineering mosquitoes, but the giant philanthropy’s single biggest success story is its investment in vaccines for children in poor countries.
Now, the foundation is teaming up again with its first partner and Seattle neighbor PATH to accelerate efforts to develop new and cheaper vaccines against more than a dozen diseases that continue to take a deadly toll around the globe.
A $120 million grant to PATH’s Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access, announced Wednesday, will allow the program to operate more like a pharmaceutical company — focused not on profits but saving lives, said Dr. Trevor Mundel, Gates’ president of global health.
“PATH is in some ways a competitor with … these big pharma companies, which have massive resources,” Mundel said. “You’ve really got to have stable funding over a long period, so we felt we really needed a substantial grant.”
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The four-year grant will boost PATH’s ability to work on a wide range of vaccines, including against pneumonia — now the leading infectious killer of children — and a range of respiratory and digestive infections, said PATH President and CEO Steve Davis.
The money has already helped the nonprofit hire some top vaccine experts, including a former vice president of GlaxoSmithKline and a former top official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“The scope of our capacity, the talent and the number of diseases we’re working on really puts us in the middle of the vaccine world, globally,” Davis said.
Now headquartered in South Lake Union near the Gates Foundation, PATH was the recipient of the fledgling foundation’s first global-health grant in 1995: $750,000 for family-planning programs. Since then, PATH has received more than $2.5 billion from the world’s richest charity for programs ranging from nutrition and women’s health to development of the world’s first malaria vaccine.
One of the nonprofit’s leading accomplishments is a vaccine that has nearly eliminated a deadly type of meningitis across much of North Africa. Manufactured in India, a dose costs about 50 cents and has been given to more than 235 million people over the past seven years.
PATH is working now to get more countries to adopt a vaccine against rotavirus, which causes life-threatening diarrhea in both poor and wealthy nations. Also in the pipeline is a vaccine administered to mothers to protect their babies from RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which causes 34 million infections and kills about 200,000 children under the age of 5 every year.
But vaccine development is a long and costly process, requiring multimillion-dollar trials and painstaking documentation of all possible side effects, Mundel said. PATH staff also must work closely with country health ministries and the World Health Organization to navigate “labyrinthine” approval processes and set up delivery systems so vaccines can get to the people who need them, he said.
That’s why Mundel said the foundation decided to shift from piecemeal funding of individual vaccine projects to a large grant that will help PATH build the capacity to work on many types of vaccines at once and respond quickly to new threats, like Ebola.
“It’s not doing science for science’s sake,” Davis said. “It’s doing it for the sake of health outcomes.”
About 60 percent of Gates’ funding is devoted to vaccines, including major contributions to Gavi, an international vaccine alliance also funded by the U.S. and other governments.
Since its creation in 2000, Gavi has supported the immunization of 580 million children against a wide variety of diseases. A recent Gates-funded study estimated that by 2020, Gavi vaccines will have prevented 20 million deaths and $820 billion in health-care costs and other economic losses.
“From a public health point of view, vaccines are a magical intervention,” Mundel said. “It’s something you give once or twice and then you’re protected for a very long period of time.”