Vaccine experts gathered at an EU conference in Brussels earlier this month to discuss the future of vaccine research and innovation in the EU.
The EU Commission, which hosted the meeting, noted that to maintain Europe’s strong leadership in vaccines – which is good for citizens’ wellbeing and economic growth – there is a need for innovation, as well as improved cooperation between the public and private sectors.
One objective of the meeting was to define priorities for future work programmes of Horizon 2020, Europe’s new research and innovation framework programme.
Strikingly, this R&D meeting began with a look at the end users – the public. As the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn stressed that new vaccines would be worthless if the public does not demand the fruit of vaccine research.
While there is some exciting research underway that may lead to new or better vaccines, Mitchell Warren from AVAC in the US noted the ongoing importance of delivering the vaccines we have today more effectively.
So how can Europe ensure all its citizens have access to vaccination?
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said more input from social sciences is needed if the effort to find new vaccines is to be truly worthwhile.
This was echoed by Emilio Mordini, Director of the Centre for Science and Citizenship, who said there is a growing gap between science and society, as trust in governments and science has waned.
Mordini said public health advocates need to share the messages that vaccinating is part of living a decent life. “Vaccinating is not something bizarre – it’s like being properly dressed!”
The future success of vaccination programmes will also rely on collaboration between all actors, both public and private, to sustain public trust, said Angus Thomson, from Sanofi Pasteur (who is also a member of the Vaccines Today Editorial Board).
It also depends on “our will to better listen and understand public perception and engage openly and constructively with the public”, he added.
There was a lot of intriguing research under discussion, such as clever ways to transport vaccines in hot climates and whether we will see an AIDS vaccine.
But perhaps the most pertinent question came as the conference kicked-off: if the work researchers are currently doing pays off, will the public want the vaccines that emerge from the lab?
It seems there is a disconnect between exciting progress on vaccines against killer infections like malaria (or debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s) and public attitudes to immunisation.
Yes, Europe is investing a lot of money, public and private, in vaccine research. But the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn summed it up all too well: “The best vaccine in the world is worth nothing if people don’t use it.”
Watch: Where is the future of vaccine research heading?
“A vaccine that sits on the shelf is useless” – Albert Sabin