The Malaria Vaccine is a Victory for Collaborative Innovation. Now Let’s Learn from Our Successes
Last week, the WHO approved a malaria vaccine, a historic accomplishment in the fight against a disease that kills about 500,000 people each year, with about half of them children in Africa. It’s a remarkable achievement that will save untold lives. But how can we ensure that this life-saving medicine actually reaches the people who need it most?
Getting shots in arms in the poorest regions of the world requires a complex dance between global health organizations, governments, and pharmaceutical companies. The plain truth is that the incentives of these three sectors don’t always align. Governments alone cannot develop, produce, and supply medicine to those in need; drug companies must actually be profitable to stay in business.
The success of the new malaria vaccine will hinge on the same question I worked on in the early aughts, serving as the Executive Vice President at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI): how can we use the power of markets to increase access to medicine? And what lessons can we learn for other pressing public health challenges, such as preventing the next pandemic?
The answer: public-private partnerships.
At CHAI, my team filled an important role: a trusted intermediary who could negotiate in good faith, finding the common ground between economic realities and public health needs. We brought together multiple producers, organizations like the WHO, and national governments to negotiate prices and accurately project demand. This allowed the producers to cut costs and risk so they could charge more affordable prices and make malaria medicines available to more people in need.
The public/private partnership model can solve not just the economic problems we need to overcome, but scientific and technological challenges as well. In my years working to curb malaria, I saw firsthand that public health entities struggled with something basic: understanding where and when illness is starting and spreading. Without knowing this in real time, how can you have a fighting chance to stop it?
We don’t have to recreate the wheel. That’s where public-private partnerships come in. Why shouldn’t we bring to bear the power of private sector innovation with the expertise and resources of the government — to bring public health into the 21st century? If novel data sources exist that can dramatically improve our government’s ability to get ahead of illness — such as personal health sensors like smart thermometers and fitness watches that capture biometric data in real-time — shouldn’t this technology be put to use? If one of the goals of our preeminent public health agency, the CDC, is to detect emerging epidemics sooner so they can respond in a more targeted and effective manner, public health leaders must be transparent about their ability to do that and seek private sector partners who can augment their capabilities.
The traditional tools of public health have been hand washing, masks, diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines, but there is information and data at our disposal that can be used to stop a variety of epidemics — from COVID-19 to suicide. However, the CDC — and governments in general — are often at a data disadvantage and should commit to seeking help from the private sector that has access to real-time data derived from its own technology. These very devices may be able to detect illness well before the patient enters the healthcare system (if they can afford to), a system already made up of delays that cost lives. As it was at the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC sent surveyors to hospitals, which by then was too late.
The technology is available. Let’s use it.
The country and the world are counting on our leaders to carry forward lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and make sure that when the next one comes, we’re better prepared and more resilient. From government to industry, we all have a role to play in protecting public health. It’s time to work together.