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To stop pandemics, act now

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When G20 leaders sit down this week in Hamburg, they will restate their commitment to tackling the most pressing threats to global health. Germany has been instrumental in this. Angela Merkel first championed global health at the G7 and she continues to do so at the helm of the G20.

Chief among these risks is the increasing threat of epidemics. At any moment, we could once again find ourselves in the midst of a new outbreak like the devastating Ebola epidemic that swept across West Africa in 2014. Zika stands as proof of just that: a cruel and unpreventable disease affecting the development of unborn children.

Yet in many ways, Ebola’s devastating impact on local communities and the threat of a widespread outbreak spurred the global health community to a level of achievement we never dreamed possible. We undertook more research, faster, and with greater innovation and collaboration, than ever before.

We can be proud of our progress: from the development of new clinical stage medicines to the significant progress in advancing preventive vaccines that could help stop the spread of Ebola altogether. But there is more to be done. Today, there is no approved drug to treat or cure Ebola should it break out again, no widely available rapid point-of-care test to diagnose it, and ultimately no licensed vaccine to stop its spread.

On the eve of the G20, we encourage the global health community to keep up this momentum and come together with the same sense of urgency, commitment, and partnership we saw during the height of the Ebola crisis. It’s vital that we finish the job at hand with Ebola, but also that we address other known threats and prepare for those that may emerge. This will require not just the development of new and existing drug and vaccine candidates, but also the political will to use new approaches that stimulate, support and sustain industry and others’ research efforts.

Better financial incentives that encourage or help offset the cost of development are needed to enable more companies and public institutions to develop promising vaccine and therapeutic candidates not just for Ebola, but for the MERS, Nipah, and Lassa viruses, and the many other pathogens we know could cause a serious epidemic.

One such model is already helping to fill this gap. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is a public-private partnership to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines to prevent and contain infectious disease epidemics. CEPI seeks to give the world an insurance policy against epidemics, by delivering a pipeline of promising vaccine candidates that are tested and ready use as soon as a disease breaks out.

Germany once again showed tremendous foresight and leadership in being a founding investor in CEPI, along with the governments of Japan and Norway, plus the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Johnson & Johnson with other pharmaceutical companies, the World Health Organization, Médecins Sans Frontières and leading academic vaccine research groups also stepped up to provide their backing. But we cannot consider the job done – CEPI needs greater support and more funding to be sure to reach its goals.

As G20 leaders sit down this week, we call on those world leaders gathered, to share in our determination. We know what works. We have the science, the technology and now the mechanism to fund the vaccines we need to help protect us from the threat of epidemics. What we need now is the continued political commitment to the policies and investments needed to enable CEPI and other incentive models that encourage research and development.

We have witnessed the devastation of the Ebola epidemic on people’s lives, health systems and entire economies. We are so close to overcoming these great challenges of our generation, and we believe strongly that it would be truly a tragedy if we as the global community let our guard down for even a moment.

Germany has set the example by focusing the world’s attention on global health and leading the way with investment. But this is a collective responsibility for our shared future. Working together, we can develop the tools to secure and advance human health, bolster economies and give the world reason to truly celebrate our humanity and our ingenuity.

Jeremy Farrar is Director of the Wellcome Trust. Paul Stoffels is Chief Scientific Officer of Johnson & Johnson

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