The COVID-19 pandemic is illustrating the need like never before for the scientific community to work together. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is addressing this urgency with its equitable access approach to accelerating vaccine development and distribution to all.
Launched in 2017 following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, CEPI is supported by a mix of public- and private-partners with a mission of creating a world in which epidemics are no longer a threat to humanity. CEPI weaves the principles of equitable access throughout its work – from its funding agreements that require enabling science practices to its stance on not owning the intellectual property (IP) developed from its partnerships.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a significant early funder of CEPI and that’s where Richard Wilder got involved. Now general counsel and director of business development at CEPI, Wilder comes with experience at Gates having ushered through its open access policy and championing the value of sharing research.
“The mantra we have at CEPI is to pursue our projects with speed, scale, and access,” Wilder said. “If you are going to move at speed to have a vaccine, the only way to do that is if you are open and transparent with how you are working and open and transparent with respect to research being generated from the funding.”
In April 2020, CEPI partnered with Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, and the World Health Organization to form COVAX – a global initiative to manage development of new vaccines to end the acute phase of the pandemic by 2021. A pillar of the WHO Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, COVAX’s aim is to bring together skills, expertise and financing to make 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine available to countries with limited resources.
“As long as there are cases of the virus anywhere in the world, everyone is at risk,” Wilder wrote in a December article. “There is a critical need for transformed and more inclusive preparedness and response arrangements that not only protect the most vulnerable populations but also mitigate the economic impact of pandemics.”
CEPI invested over $1 billion to date in several development and manufacturing vaccine projects. In its agreements, access to the resulting data, research results (whether positive or negative), and publications is required so all can benefit from the work. CEPI’s human rights approach is in line with the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) proposals. By enabling access to this kind of information the hope is to streamline vaccine development by improving the collective knowledge base and reducing duplication of research.
See CEPI’s “Enabling Equitable Access to COVID-19 Vaccines” paper published January 26.
CEPI requires its development partners to manage their IP in such a way that equitable access can be realized. The idea is to deliver vaccines to billions of people quickly without stifling innovation.
The Equitable Access Policy adopted by CEPI recognizes the impact of open access to data and samples from studies so researchers can reproduce the work and build upon it. Wilder says CEPI sets the expectation of operating in open from the beginning and sends constant reminders to the partners to ensure it happens.
“There is wide acceptance of the basic philosophy behind the equitable access policy and acceptance of the terms and conditions in our deals,” Wilder said.
With the rush to COVID-19 vaccines, it was particularly important to be able to share information on platforms throughout the discovery process. Since CEPI is funding some of the same projects that others have been supported by other governments, operating in open allows facilitates sharing of progress.
“Compared to 10 years ago, there is a common understanding by funders, companies, universities that open access published materials, data and information is going to be a baseline requirement,” Wilder said. “The notion that [work] is going to be disclosed is no longer contentious’ it’s more around the margins of how and when that’s going to be done.”
With the demands for global development and distribution of a vaccine, comes calls for more openness and transparency at every step to solve the problem. “With the growth of CEPI and our expanding work that depends on data analytics and the application of AI tools that our call for open access to data, information and materials is going to get only stronger,” said Wilder.
In the aftermath of this pandemic, some of the studies will show that there was some additional openness and transparency but there could be and should be more, Wilder said: “If the world really wants to be able to respond almost instantly to an outbreak of a new pathogen, we really do need to be able to so rapidly.”