Bill Gates has pledged $12 million in funding to fuel advances toward a universal flu vaccine, STAT News reports. After this year’s devastating flu season, the race for a shot that could protect against a broad range of flu viruses for years on end feels even more urgent — but is $12 million really enough to help?
Gates announced the funding today at a conference. Half would come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the other half would be from the family of Google co-founder Larry Page. The money would be doled out in grants of up to $2 million for individual projects “that are bold and innovative,” the funding website says.
The idea is that the $2 million, paid over two years, would be enough money for researchers to collect preliminary data in animal models. And then the most promising strategies could be eligible to apply for up to another $10 million to take the vaccine candidates to human trials. The foundation is looking for proposals that could be ready to start clinical trials by 2021.
Still, the $12 million in seed money seems like a small drop in the flood of funding needed for vaccine development, STAT points out. The National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease spent $64 million on universal flu vaccine research in the 2017 fiscal year alone, according to Bloomberg. And a year without a flu season could still be at least a decade away.
The funding proposal also takes aim at the wrong part of the race, according to NPR: there are plenty of promising candidates at the starting line, but fewer have enough funding to actually make it into clinical trials — a key hurdle en route to the finish. ‘’The real bottleneck is getting these experimental vaccines into testing in humans, and that is a very expensive undertaking,” vaccine researcher Sarah Gilbert told NPR.
Still, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding those efforts from other pots of money. The charity has given more than $9.5 million to support the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s efforts to take a universal flu vaccine into human trials, for example. Florian Krammer, a microbiology professor at Mount Sinai who’s working on this project, joked that the team would still be vaccinating mice without the foundation’s support. “They enabled us to start testing our vaccine in humans,” he said in an email to The Verge. He called today’s announcement “a very good step in the right direction.”
Paul Radspinner, president and CEO of FluGen, a company that’s working on a candidate universal flu vaccine that uses a genetically modified flu virus, said that today’s announcement was a win for the field. “Having the Gates Foundation throw its weight behind the search for a universal flu vaccine is fantastic news,” he said in an email to The Verge. “We’re not concerned about the size of the investment as I’m sure this is just the first of many announcements by the Foundation about how they will play a significant role in this area.”
Gates himself echoed that sentiment, in an interview with STAT. “This is the early-stage money,” he said. “This $12 million isn’t the end of the game.”