In March 2014, GSK responded to the Ebola outbreak with humanitarian support to our relief agency partners on the ground. Previous outbreaks had been managed and halted by infection control measures.
However, only a few months later West Africa was suffering from the rapidly spreading outbreak. GSK’s Jon Pender explains why working in partnership was key to addressing the pace of the current outbreak.
As Vice-President of Government Affairs, Global Health at GSK, I am focused on ensuring that we continually strive to improve sustainable access to our medicines in the developing world. To this end, partnership is key.
We collaborate with governments, Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and multilateral agencies including the UK Government, European Parliament and Commission, UN, World Bank, Gavi  and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Collaborations of this nature are instrumental in our response to international health emergencies, and our response to the Ebola outbreak was no different.
Controlling the Ebola outbreak
Given previous experience with Ebola disease outbreaks, the WHO and other experts initially thought the disease could be controlled through containment and isolation; all other outbreaks to date had been managed by good infection control measures. But by August it was clear this Ebola outbreak was unlike any other. WHO declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. For GSK, in addition to making significant financial and product donations to support on-the-ground work by our partners such as Save the Children, this refocused approach meant we accelerated work to fast track the development of our candidate Ebola vaccine for clinical trials.
We had acquired the candidate vaccine through our acquisition of a biotech company called Okairos in May 2013. Prior to the outbreak, we had been working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Government’s medical research organisation, on the development of this vaccine. So we were in a good position to fast track the development of a vaccine, but knew that we couldn’t do it alone.
Fast tracking the development of a candidate vaccine requires multiple processes coming together in parallel that would otherwise take place sequentially. For example, clinical development processes need to be expedited, policy developed and capacity identified, all of which need both political and financial support.
On this occasion, to fast track the development of our trial Ebola vaccine and share the risks associated with this process, we looked to a coalition of partners. Support came from numerous organisations including the WHO, the Wellcome Trust, the UK Department for International Development, the European Commission, Swiss Government, BARDA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Medical Research Council. We also needed support from research partners to conduct clinical trials in parallel, and this came from the University of Oxford, Maryland University, Lausanne University, the NIH and the University of Mali. By working together with each of these partners from an early stage, we were able to expedite the development of the candidate vaccine.
So what have we learned throughout this process?
When the world is very clear about what it needs, such as a rapid response to Ebola, the healthcare industry has shown that it can work quickly and robustly in partnership with international agencies, national governments and academia. But we must continue to work together in collaboration to ensure we can respond better, faster and more effectively going forward.
Business as usual does not, and cannot, apply if we want to make a difference for future outbreaks.
 Gavi: Created in 2000, Gavi is an international organisation – a global Vaccine Alliance, bringing together public and private sectors with the shared goal of creating equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries.
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