A new scientific institute that aims to prevent future pandemics could have saved thousands of lives by accelerating vaccine development if it had existed before December 2019, believe its researchers.
Liverpool’s new Pandemic Institute will feature a new human challenge facility, where volunteers will test new vaccines and treatments under controlled conditions.
If the vaccine candidates could have been tested in the first wave of infections, the vaccines would have been ready months earlier, according to Professor Daniela Ferreira, head of clinical sciences at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), and the one of the new team of the institute.
The LSTM is one of seven universities, hospitals and local authorities in the city behind the institute, which was launched on Monday with £ 10million in funding from medical group Innova.
Research on human challenges is already taking place in hospitals, but the Pandemic Institute will have a high containment facility outside the hospital, which will speed up the process.
“Here in Liverpool, I ran one of the Oxford Vaccine Study Phase 3 sites,” Ferreira said. “We were able to settle in very quickly. When the government implemented a nationwide lockdown, the number of cases plummeted. We expected to have the results of the vaccine study in three months, but it took much longer because there was less community transmission. “
If the facilities of the Pandemic Institute had been available in January 2020, the first prototypes of vaccines and antiviral drugs could have been tested for their effectiveness in the first wave.
Had the vaccines been available for testing in 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 get a much faster idea whether a vaccine is likely to work or not,” Ferreira said.
Since new viruses are usually zoonotic diseases that pass from animals to humans, one of the main goals of the new institute will be to create a database of diseases affecting animals and try to determine which ones might be the more likely to cross the cash barrier.
“We have the world’s largest database of pathogens and hosts and where they are found,” said institute director Professor Matthew Baylis of the University of Liverpool. “We’re using that to drive part of our work on prediction – which animals the next coronavirus might emerge from and so on.”
With 1,500 bat species alone, the task is enormous. “What I’m hoping is that in 10 years we can be a lot more specific about what species we need to look at, and actually look at some of those species to confirm our predictions.
“At some point in the future we should be able to catch a virus and know what it is capable of doing. It is an extremely ambitious idea, but everything is contained in the [genetic] sequence. At some point in the future a new virus would be discovered and without waiting to see what it does we can say “it seems to have these properties, it could be transmitted that way, it could cause this type of disease” .
This in turn would give vaccine researchers a huge head start over current technology.
Several other organizations similar to the Pandemic Institute are being created around the world. This month, the World Health Organization opened the Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin, and the French government launched Prezode, an international initiative focused on zoonoses, while the Rockefeller Foundation establishes a prevention institute pandemics in the United States.
Baylis said he expects strong international cooperation and intends to set up three centers in East, West and Southern Africa to work with local researchers.
Professor Henry Mwandumba, acting director of the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome clinical research program, said working with the Pandemic Institute would improve cooperation between Malawi and the UK.
“I think the response to the pandemic would have been faster [with the institute], certainly in Malawi and other resource-limited countries. We could have mobilized the resources needed to deal with a pandemic and systems would have been in place that did not exist before the pandemic. “