April 27 (UPI) -- Billionaire Bill Gates has announced a $12 million Grand Challenge to fund research of universal flu vaccines in preparation for the next flu pandemic.
Gates, who founded Microsoft, announced at the New England Journal of Medicine's annual Shattuck Lecture in Boston that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with Google co-founder Larry Page and his wife, Lucy, will provide the seed money.
"The goal is to encourage bold thinking by the world's best scientists across disciplines, including those new to the field," Gates told attendees.
In the pilot phase, individual grants will range from $250,000 to $2 million over two years, Gates told STAT editors and reporters before announcing the funding. An additional $10 million may be provided if project is promising in animal studies but that money is not part of this funding round.
"I'm the super optimist, pointing out that life keeps getting better for most people in the world," Gates said. "Here is one area, though, where the world isn't making much progress, and that's pandemic preparedness. This should concern us all, because if history has taught us anything, it's that there will be another deadly global pandemic."
He noted it's not known when the next one will occur.
"But given the continual emergence of new pathogens, the increasing risk of a bioterror attack and how connected our world is through air travel, there is a significant probability of a large and lethal, modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes," he said. "Watching Hollywood thrillers, you'd think the world was pretty good at protecting the public from deadly microorganisms. We like to believe that somewhere out there, there is a team ready to spring into action -- equipped with the latest and best technologies.
"In the real world, though, the health infrastructure we have for normal times breaks down very rapidly during major infectious disease outbreaks. This is especially true in poor countries. But even in the U.S., our response to a pandemic or widespread bioterror attack would be insufficient."
The past 20 years has seen spread of severe acute upper respiratory syndrome, or SARS; H1N1 or swine flu), Ebola and Zika.
The announcement comes 100 years after the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic killed 50 million people around the globe. In the United States, it killed about 675,000 people in the first five weeks after it reached the nation.
If a highly contagious and lethal airborne pathogen like the 1918 flu were to occur today, more than 33 million people worldwide would die in 250 days, according to a simulation by the Institute for Disease Modeling.
"That's the sobering news," he said. "The good news is that scientific advances and growing interest on the federal level, in the private sector and among philanthropic funders makes development of a universal flu vaccine more feasible now than 10 or 20 years ago.
"What the world needs -- and what our safety, if not survival, demands -- is a coordinated global approach," Gates said. "Specifically, we need better tools, an early detection system and a global response system."
Last year, a public-private partnership called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations was launched with funding commitments of more than $630 million. CEPI's priority is the development of vaccines for three of the priority diseases on the World Health Organization list for public health research and development: Lassa fever, Nipah virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
Since 2006, the U.S. Congress has mandated the president's administration every four years to produce a comprehensive plan to strengthen global health security, including pandemics and hazards.
And Thursday, the European Commission urged its member nations to cooperate more closely in reducing diseases that can be prevented by vaccines.
In February, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced a new priority of developing a universal influenza vaccine that can protect people of all ages against multiple flu strains.
Volunteers are being sought for two Phase 2 clinical trials for a universal vaccine against H7N9, a strain of avian influenza that has not reached humans in the United States.
In February, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare approved a new drug called Xofluza, which the company says will kill the flu virus in one day.
"As I said at the start, I'm fundamentally an optimist, and that gives me hope that we can get prepared for the next big pandemic," Gates said.
He noted the smallpox, a disease that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone, was eradicated, and polio, a disease that 30 years ago paralyzed or killed 350,000 people a year, is nearly eradicated. Nearly 21 million people are receiving life-saving HIV treatment.
"Somewhere in the history of these collective efforts is a roadmap to create a comprehensive pandemic preparedness and response system," Gates said. "We must find it and follow it because lives -- in numbers too great to comprehend -- depend on it."
Lucy and Larry Page are also backing efforts by the Sabin Vaccine Institute for innovation to eliminate the threat of a deadly flu pandemic.
"The Grand Challenge is a strong example of how we can invigorate influenza research and stimulate interest to accelerate the development of a long-lasting, universal flu vaccine," Dr. Bruce Gellin, Sabin's president of Global Immunization said in a statement. "The Grand Challenge is a strong example of how we can invigorate influenza research and stimulate interest to accelerate the development of a long-lasting, universal flu vaccine."