A new scientific institute which aims to prevent future pandemics may have been able to save thousands of lives by accelerating vaccine development had it existed before December 2019, its researchers believe.
Liverpool’s new Pandemic Institute will include a new human challenge facility, where volunteers will test new vaccines and treatments under controlled conditions.
If vaccine candidates could have been tested during the first wave of infections, the jabs would have been ready months earlier, according to Professor Daniela Ferreira, the head of clinical sciences at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), and one of the new institute’s team.
The LSTM is one of seven universities, hospitals and local authorities in the city behind the institute, which launches on Monday with £10m funding from Innova medical group.
Human challenge research already takes place in hospitals, but the Pandemic Institute will have a high containment facility outside hospital, which will speed up the process.
“Here in Liverpool I led one of the sites for phase 3 of the Oxford vaccine study,” Ferreira said. “We were able to set up really quickly. When the government implemented a national lockdown, the number of cases plummeted. We were expecting to have the vaccine study results in three months but it took much longer because there was less community transmission.”
If the Pandemic Institute’s facilities had been available in January 2020, the earliest vaccine prototypes and antiviral drugs could have been tested for effectiveness during the first wave.
Had the vaccines been available for testing during the first wave, Ferreira believes they could have been ready “at least three months” earlier – at the start of the second wave in October, during which more than 80,000 people died.
“If we use a controlled model, you can have a much quicker idea if a vaccine is likely to work or not,” Ferreira said.
Since novel viruses are usually zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans, one of the main focuses of the new institute will be building a database of diseases affecting animals and trying to work out which might be most likely to cross the species barrier.
“We have the world’s largest database of pathogens and hosts and where they’re found,” said the institute’s director, Professor Matthew Baylis of Liverpool University. “We’re using that to drive some of our work on prediction – which animals might the next coronavirus emerge from and so on.”
Met 1,500 species of bat alone, the task is enormous. “What I hope is that in 10 years’ time, we’re able to be much more precise as to which species we need to be looking at, and actually look at some of those species to confirm our predictions.
“At some point in the future we should be able to get a virus and know what it’s capable of doing. It’s a hugely ambitious idea but everything is contained within the [genetic] sequence. At some point in the future, a new virus would be found and without waiting to see what it does, we can say ‘it appears to have these properties, it could be transmitted this way, it could cause this type of disease’.”
That in turn would give vaccine researchers a huge head start compared with current technology.
Several other bodies similar to the Pandemic Institute are being set up around the world. Hierdie maand, the World Gesondheid Organization opened the Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin, and the French government launched Prezode, an international initiative focusing on zoonotic diseases, while the Rockefeller Foundation is creating a Pandemic Prevention Institute in the US.
Baylis said that he expected strong international cooperation, and intends to set up three hubs in east, west and southern Africa to work with local researchers.
Professor Henry Mwandumba, acting director of the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome clinical research programme, said working with the Pandemic Institute would improve Malawi and UK cooperation.
“I think the response to the pandemic would have been quicker [with the institute], certainly in Malawi and other resource-limited countries. We could have mobilised the resources necessary to deal with a pandemic and systems would have been in place that didn’t exist before the pandemic.”