[Ip-health] FT: Philanthropists play a crucial role in developing vaccines

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Thu May 28 22:53:16 PDT 2020

Philanthropists play a crucial role in developing vaccines
Pandemic sparks new wave of donor interest in financing research

Sarah Murray MAY 22 2020


With long time horizons, complex science and high failure rates, vaccine
development is not for the faint-hearted philanthropist. But in a world
gripped by coronavirus, many donors have put aside such concerns and are
writing large cheques in the hope of contributing to the end of the

Alibaba founder Jack Ma has promised more than $14m for coronavirus
research, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged up to $100m
to the global response to Covid-19, including funding to accelerate the
development of vaccines.

Even the Gates Foundation’s move pales in comparison with the funds now
being committed by governments and pharmaceutical companies. In the US
alone, the National Institutes of Health, the federal research centres,
have secured $1.8bn in additional government funding for Covid-19 work,
including vaccine investigations.

Meanwhile the American drugs group Johnson & Johnson is putting $1bn
into developing a specific coronavirus vaccine, in a project jointly funded
by the US government.

But charitable dollars can still play a crucial role. Philanthropy advisors
say donors are free from the burdens of politics that often hamper
policymakers and from the profits drive that influences companies (even if,
as with J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine, executives claim a particular move is


When companies do invest, it tends to be in the later stages of vaccine
development, says Melissa Stevens, executive director of the Milken
Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, which advises families,
foundations and individual philanthropists.

Charitable dollars can play a critical role in closing the gap between the
original research project and delivering a vaccine to the public, perhaps
10-15 years later.

Donors fund the earlier, riskier stages in the journey of vaccines from
academia, government labs and entrepreneurial biotech firms to pre-clinical
trials and ensuring they meet the regulatory standards needed to enter
clinical trials. “That’s where philanthropy can have an outsized impact,”
says Stevens.

British philanthropist Richard Ross agrees. He chairs Rosetrees Trust, a
fund specialising in medical research established by his late entrepreneur
parents, which has distributed nearly £50m since its foundation in 1987.

“A lot of [early research] is basic science, which can be 30 years away
from practical application in medicine,” he says. “People come and say I
can’t get grant money because I have no data. We can make a difference with
one year’s money or three years’ money. That’s an entrepreneurial approach.”


Another challenge for individual philanthropists without the resources of
billionaire donors is the sheer amount of money required for vaccine

This was among the reasons behind a new collaborative fund, which was
launched in January to accelerate the development of vaccines against
emerging diseases.

With an initial investment of $460m from the German, Japanese and Norwegian
governments, the Gates Foundation and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, the
Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations acts as a hub to which any
philanthropist can contribute. The group has issued an urgent call for $2bn
to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

Another way for a philanthropist with less money than Gates to help is to
create a prize to stimulate academic competition. American philanthropists
Gary and Alya Michelson have done just that through the Michelson Prizes.
Their annual awards go to young scientists — each winner receiving $150,000
— who are working in new ways on human immunology, vaccine discovery, and
immunotherapy research in major global diseases.


Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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