Vaccines must be kept at stable temperatures – which is a particularly challenging problem in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Not only can road networks and electricity supply systems be unreliable, high temperatures can render vaccines ineffective.
Finding a solution is far from easy but the EU has offered a reward of €2 million for a new way to get vaccines to those who need them most.
The prize, unveiled at a health innovation conference in April, wants inventors, researchers, companies, NGOs – or anyone else with a workable solution – to come up with novel ways to formulate vaccines or alternative transportation techniques which would help more vaccines reach their destination intact.
Can vaccine prize deliver ‘Eureka’ moment?
Dr Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, who heads up the health unit at the European Commission’s research directorate, told Vaccines Today that the plan to offer a prize was inspired by the X Prize – a US-based fund which rewards bright ideas.
While the EU funds lots of individual health research projects, this one is different. It doesn’t specify how the problem should be solved and is designed to inject extra impetus into the field of vaccine transport.
Even proposals that don’t win the top prize could still be applied or adapted by aid agencies and companies working in developing countries.
“It’s designed to leverage at least a 10-fold fund from different participants. While the prize would reward the idea judged by experts as being the best, the entire field will be moved forward. Let’s imagine we have both storage and transportation proposals, both technologies could be used at a later time to meet the needs of a particular country or even adapted to a certain type of vaccine,” Draghia-Akli explained.
Vaccine transport was chosen for this pilot project because experts sense that a solution is tantalizingly close – but in need of a final push.
“We felt a prize would galvanize the field and allow everyone to move forward much faster,” Draghia-Akli told Vaccines Today.
So far, expressions of interest have been received but the closing date for registration is the end of April 2013, with a final deadline for entries in September.
Full interview with Dr Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, Director of the Health Directorate at the European Commission’s research directorate
Vaccines Today: How did they idea of a ‘Vaccine Prize’ come about?
Ruxandra Draghia-Akli: The genesis of the idea in part comes from thinking about Horizon 2020 – the follow up to the ‘FP7’ European research programme. Our Commissioner wanted to foster innovation and we felt that health was particularly well-suited to running pilot projects.
Prizes can deliver breakthroughs in problems which have been relatively intractable using the traditional [grant based] funding model. The X Prize in the US is a good example of this so we had a workshop with external experts, people from the X Prize Foundation and European Commission staff to figure out what a pilot prize in health research might look like.
Vaccines Today: So the X Prize in the US was the model?
Draghia-Akli: The X Prize is a good example of how to reward innovation in areas where the field is almost there but there may be a gap of three to five years [before the product is ready for the market]. We felt a prize would galvanize the field and allow everyone to move forward much faster.
People from the X-prize came in for a detailed conversation about how to identify the right area. We spoke about areas of research where innovation is bubbling but they need a little bit of a push, and at the same time we wanted to choose an issue that is of public health interest.
Vaccines Today: This way of awarding funding and incentivising innovation is new for the Commission. Why was this specific issue chosen for the pilot?
Draghia-Akli: We had a few candidate areas in health. In-house expertise confirmed that the vaccine idea might be a good one, and so we then went forward with a preliminary panel of external experts taken from the WHO, ECDC and academia who confirmed that – with an appropriate set of rules – this could work.
Vaccines Today: When is the deadline for expressions of interest and when is the final deadline for submitting ideas?
Draghia-Akli: The deadline for registration – and it really is as simple as filling in contact details on a 1-page form and emailing it [see website] – is 30 April 2013. The application form proper must then be sent by 30 September 2013.
Vaccines Today: How many expressions of interest have you received to date?
Vaccines Today: Where do they come from geographically?
Draghia-Akli: We have a range of applicant profiles including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Denmark and Israel.
Right now we are raising awareness of the prize. As I have been a researcher myself I know researchers can be bad with deadlines as they have to manage very many grant applications.
Vaccines Today: Are these potential applicants drawn primarily from individuals, industry, NGOs, academia or other sources?
Draghia-Akli: It’s an interesting mix of academia, SMEs [small and medium enterprises] and larger companies. Though we have not yet asked for information on approaches to be used yet, we surmise from the identity of applicants that a range of approaches from design to more ‘pure’ science will be suggested. This is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping to achieve.
Out of 20-something you can’t say there’s a trend. The only thing we can say is that most applications are from teams rather than individuals.
Vaccines Today: How did you select the size of the prize fund and are you confident that it will be adequate to incentivise people to apply?
Draghia-Akli: The experts we consulted suggested a prize of between €1.5m and 2.5m. It’s designed to leverage at least a 10-fold fund from different participants. While the prize would reward the idea judged by experts as being the best, the entire field will be moved forward. Let’s imagine we have both storage and transportation options, both technologies could be used at a later time to meet the needs of a particular country or even adapted to a certain type of vaccine.
Vaccines Today: When will the winner be announced?
Draghia-Akli: Around December 2013.