White House Leadership Needed to Make Bill Gates’ Vaccine Vision a Reality

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This is a guest blog by Holly Wong, vice president of public policy for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Testifying recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the President’s Global Health Initiative (GHI), Bill Gates highlighted the critical role health technologies play in economic development. He also reiterated a call, first made in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, for the next ten years to be named—and treated as—the “Decade of Vaccines.”

Being Bill Gates, he has also pledged U.S. $10 billion over the next ten years to help make it so.

That’s an impressive figure, and Gates’ goal is laudable. But he and his foundation can’t do this alone. Generous as it is, the contributions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to global health projects accounted for just 5% of all such assistance in 2007. The bulk of this sort of funding still comes from governments, including the U.S. and the UK, among other countries.

But there’s a problem. In its current form, the GHI excludes research on new prevention tools, such as vaccines, that could bring about an end to some of the world’s deadliest but potentially preventable diseases—such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV. This omission exists despite the GHI including a goal of improving children’s health by, among other things, increasing the dissemination of current vaccines. Only a vaccine has ever eradicated a major viral disease – smallpox – and vaccines have driven other devastating diseases, such as polio, to the verge of extinction.

Vaccines aren’t just effective at preventing disease. They are also cost effective. Even if all existing HIV prevention and treatment programs were expanded to maximum scale, they would by 2031 succeed in cutting new HIV infections by just half. And getting there would cost $35 billion annually, about three times as much as is currently invested in such efforts, if the estimates of the aids2031 project are on the mark.

An effective AIDS vaccine, on the other hand, would reduce the need for such staggering outlays and assure the sustainability of the global response to the pandemic. Today, for every two people who are put on life-prolonging antiretroviral treatment, another five are newly infected by HIV. A vaccine would change this deadly arithmetic. Indeed, even an AIDS vaccine that is just 50% effective and given to only 30% of the population would, by our projections, cut the number of new infections by 24%, or 5.6 million, over 15 years. Needless to say, a more effective vaccine would have a far greater impact—and that includes the possibility of ending the pandemic.

Happily, a series of recent breakthroughs in the field suggest that the development of such a vaccine isn’t just a good idea, but an attainable goal. It is one, however, that will only be realized with the sustained—and preferably increased—support of governments for new health technologies, above all vaccines. We could begin down this path with the inclusion of research and development of critical new health technologies as a central component of the GHI vision.

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