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Call to Action: Driving Innovation toward the Development of Universal Influenza Vaccine

A summary of the discussion and insights from an April 2019 convening of vaccine research, technology, industry, funding and policy leaders.

In April 2019, Sabin brought together vaccine research, technology, industry, funding and policy leaders to discuss a “call to action” around driving innovation toward the development of a universal influenza vaccine. Explore questions and insights that shaped the robust dialogue on critical next steps to address challenges and stimulate new thinking and tactics.


The Meeting Brief

London April 3-4, 2019

With the backdrop of the centenary mark of the epic toll of the 1918 influenza pandemic, governments, philanthropists, industry, and the media again sounded the alarm of the unique and ever-present threat posed by this menacing disease. And while promising additional research initiatives and investments emerged in response, much of its focus remained on incremental approaches engaging the traditional stakeholders of the influenza community.

Influenza simultaneously costs hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of dollars in lost productivity every year and threatens catastrophic pandemic potential that has demonstrated historical disruption to global economic and social stability and the loss of millions of lives seen from few other natural or man-made causes. Despite this, a broadly cross-protective universal influenza vaccine (UIV)–the surest way to protect the world—remains as cited in Jonathan Cohen’s recent Science article, ‘an alchemist’s dream’. How is it—given all that we know of the clear and present dangers of influenza—that we have yet to focus and harness the full power of the scientific and technological enterprise toward this goal? The current assets—human, technical, and financial—seeking to upend this grave threat remain woefully inadequate compared to the scale and urgency of this global challenge.

Beginning in 2018 and with support from Flu Lab, the Sabin Vaccine Institute set out to examine the current influenza vaccine ecosystem and to consider how to create opportunities for novel and innovative research to contribute to an acceleration of the pursuit of a universal influenza vaccine. Through an extensive landscaping involving experts from across the research, industry, funding, and policy spectrum, a number of challenges were identified that consistently pointed to deterrents to broadening innovative approaches to UIV development:

  • “research siloes neither invite nor incentivize participation from non-traditional players…space does not exist for collaboration, cross-pollination, and serendipity”
  • “traditional research culture does not encourage risk-taking or ‘big bets’ given competition and pressure to publish”
  • “influenza vaccine research has been a closed ecosystem dominated by a small number of traditional players”
  • “private capital and philanthropic donor investment is nascent in UIV, and there are missed opportunities to engage funders who are interested in innovation and transformative change”