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"The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was a perfect example of how that timeline just doesn't work," says Andrew Pekosz, a flu researcher at Johns Hopkins University. "We ended up vaccinating people during or immediately after the peak of the pandemic."
So there are really two approaches to make humanity better prepared for the "big one."
1. Develop a vaccine that provides long-lasting protection against multiple forms of influenza A. Then people are protected before a pandemic begins. So this would be like the vaccines we have for many other viruses, such as polio, measles and whooping cough.
2. Figure out a faster way to produce the seasonal vaccines we already have.
Scientists have already solved the second problem. Right now the flu vaccine is produced in eggs. But years ago, scientists worked out a way to grow the vaccine in insect cells. "The process in insect cells is much, much faster than making the vaccine in eggs," Pekosz says. "We're talking about a matter of weeks, instead of months."
"But most of the vaccine manufacturers have invested large amounts of money in the egg machinery to make the vaccine" he adds. "So there needs to be a very big capital investment for the companies to move away from eggs."
Instead of investing in ways to produce the vaccine more rapidly, the Gates Foundation is now funneling more resources toward the first strategy. "Fundamentally, we are looking for unconventional approaches that ... develop universal influenza vaccines that are ready to start clinical trials by 2021," the foundation said in a statement.
"We need a broader set of ideas," says Gates Foundation president Trevor Mundel. "We need more shots on goal."
But Gilbert questions whether this is the best use of the new funding. There are several promising universal vaccines already in development, she says, including one her team is currently testing in a large clinical trial. So the holdup isn't at the preclinical stage, she says, but further down the pipeline.
"The real bottleneck is getting these experimental vaccines into testing in humans, and that is a very expensive undertaking," Gilbert says.
For instance, Gilbert says, her team needs to demonstrate that their vaccine works in a large, late-stage trial in order for governments to approve the vaccine. "Just one of these trials cost 0 million," she says.
In other words, developing an universal flu vaccine is going to take way more than million from the Gates Foundation, no matter how many more "shots on goal" that new funding provides.