Defending the world from influenza

September 24, 2018 by Katie Regan

As a nine-year project to build vaccine development capacity worldwide comes to an end, PATH and partners reflect on how far we’ve come.

IVAC scientist in influenza vaccine facility holding eggs_Photo:PATH/MatthewDakin

Vaccine manufacturers in Vietnam and other countries are increasing their capacity to provide influenza vaccine for seasonal and pandemic outbreaks in collaboration with PATH and other partners. Photo: PATH/Matthew Dakin

One hundred years ago an illness swept across the globe, triggering one of the deadliest and most economically devastating pandemics in history. Disease spread so quickly and so violently that when its grip finally loosened it had infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people. Uniquely, the young and healthy made up the majority of cases, and their loss crippled society; businesses shuttered, public gatherings were banned, and makeshift hospitals and morgues popped up wherever there was space.

The pandemic came to an end just months later but the disease’s appearance wouldn’t be an isolated event in history. Devastating outbreaks would reoccur in 1957, 1968, and 2009. It wasn’t plague, or Ebola, or any one of the myriad diseases whose names alone can speed your heart and still your breath.

It was influenza.

“This project is about what happens when a vaccine is more than just a health intervention, but is a symbol of progress and hope.”

Yes, flu, that pesky nuisance that crops up every year, that’s so common and banal it’s not even worth thinking about let alone worrying about. But we need look no further than the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic to realize how dangerous that line of thinking is. Influenza is a serious, often unpredictable disease—and we should never underestimate it.

This exemplifies why PATH teamed up with the World Health Organization and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, within the US Department of Health and Human Services, to help increase influenza vaccine development capacity and pandemic preparedness worldwide.

Since 2009 we’ve been supporting vaccine manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries as they work to develop, license, and bring to market locally-made influenza vaccines. Not only will these efforts increase vaccine access and availability for those countries that have the greatest need, but they will promote global health security by ensuring ongoing manufacturing capability in the case of a pandemic.

But now, as the vaccine developers we’ve worked with over the years are nearly ready to submit their vaccine products for licensure, the project is coming to a close. Fittingly, it does so as we mark the 100 year anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic, offering the perfect opportunity to reflect on the project’s successes, challenges, and the ways in which it has better prepared the world to respond to future influenza pandemics.

And what better way to do that than by talking to those most intimately involved? Our vaccine development partners in Serbia and Vietnam shared their stories, the ways they’ve grown and changed, and why they think the world is just a little safer now than it was ten years ago when this project began.

What we learned is this project is about so much more than just creating a vaccine. It’s about building confidence and expertise; it’s about developing respect and reputational success; and it’s about what happens when a vaccine is more than just a health intervention, but is a symbol of progress and hope.

Never again do we want to watch as influenza ravages the world, disabling essential services and striking down entire families. Especially not when the tools to prevent and mitigate such tragedy are within our reach. As our efforts to increase development capacity and bolster pandemic preparedness wind down, we look forward to stronger, more resilient defenses that bring us one step closer to a world where we may never have to.

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