Vaccine Innovation: Europe’s Crucial Role in Advancing Global Public Health

Vaccination is a success story. Over the last century, vaccines have eliminated or nearly eliminated many diseases that were once widespread and often fatal, such as smallpox and polio. In fact, vaccination is second only to clean water in reducing the global burden of infectious diseases. Today, close to 30 are vaccine-preventable – helping save 2-3 million lives globally every year.

Simply put, the impact of vaccines on global health to date has been nothing short of profound.

But arguably, what is even more moving and exciting than what vaccines have achieved so far is what they have the potential to achieve in the future. If we are to deliver on this potential, we must all work together to prioritize vaccine research and development (R&D).

Innovation drives the future

The innovation currently underway across the vaccine industry has the potential to address diseases that still challenge the medical community and threaten lives, despite the progress we’ve made. In some cases, this means protection against diseases for which there have been no vaccine breakthroughs – such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and HIV. In others, it means developing even more effective vaccines than those that exist today – for diseases like flu and tuberculosis.

We are also exploring innovative vaccines throughout a person’s lifespan. Maternal immunization is a growing area of focus, for example. Maternal vaccines are administered to a mother during pregnancy so that immunity is passed to her child before they are even born – helping to protect them as soon as they enter the world, when they are most vulnerable. Today, there are maternal vaccines in development for prevalent and potentially deadly diseases impacting infants, including RSV, group B streptococcal bacteria, and herpes simplex. For me, this is personal – my own son, Javier, contracted RSV as an infant – and the potential to bring forward a vaccine that would protect others inspires me every day.

Maintaining Europe’s R&D leadership

Europe plays a critical role in vaccine development. More than 80 percent of vaccine doses produced by Vaccines Europe member companies globally are produced IN Europe.

We know that developing the next of generation vaccines will be more complex, more risky, and more costly than ever before. So what is the incentive for companies to continue to invest in R&D when health budgets in Europe are increasingly constrained, recommendations for new vaccines are often elusive, and we are facing a growing sentiment of vaccine hesitancy from the public – all of which can make bringing new vaccines to market feel like a losing battle?

If we want to see innovation continue, we need to commit as a global health community to some important actions:

  1. We need to address the lack of a stable policy environment to support vaccine innovation. Vaccines take longer than medicines to develop – and current policy does not incentivize vaccine R&D efforts. There needs to be increased recognition of the value that vaccines bring.
  2. Vaccine developers need opportunities to continuously interact with all stakeholders from the earliest stages of development – especially regulatory authorities and recommending bodies. This will help ensure that resources are not spent developing vaccines that are unlikely to be approved and recommended.
  3. Vaccines research needs to be better connected and coordinated, particularly in Europe. At the same time, we must strengthen our research focus on the needs of low-income countries and pandemic preparedness. Anticipating and preparing for future health threats is one of the great challenges of our time, and vaccines should be part of the solution.
  4. There needs to be a shift in the mindset of healthcare investment. Healthcare systems are still largely built on treating illness, not preventing disease. Less than 3 percent of healthcare budget expenditure, on average, is currently spent on prevention – and even less on vaccines. When it comes to investing in healthcare we should ask ourselves whether the balance is right.

These are not simple challenges. Prioritizing vaccine R&D will need the support and consensus of all stakeholder groups. Vaccine innovation is one of the most powerful tools we have for progress in global health, and we must make sure it continues to have a home in Europe.

Nanette Cocero is the Global President of Pfizer Vaccines. She represented Vaccines Europe on the panel “The Magic of Science: Boosting vaccine Research, Development, and Innovation” at the Global Vaccination Summit 2019.