Starting in April, two of the biggest names in tech teamed up to fight for a universal flu vaccine. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Google co-founder Larry Page pledged to give $12 million dollars to researchers working to develop a universal vaccine for the flu.
In order to demonstrate the need for this universal vaccine, Gates recently released a simulation highlighting the dangers of the flu. The simulation shows how a quickly spreading flu virus could kill nearly 33 million people in as little as six months. It is this danger that prompted Gates and Page to offer this grant.
The $12 million in grant money will be split into grants of $2 million for individual research projects. The money would be given out over the course of two years and be used to fund the collection of data in animal subjects. After that, the most promising researchers would be able to apply for additional grants of up to $10 million in order bring the vaccine to human trials.
“We think a universal flu vaccine would not only eliminate the pandemic risk, but would have significant health benefits,” Gates told STAT News.
Gates and Page said they are interested in funding projects which are “game-changing,” as opposed to incremental improvements on existing treatments. Researchers will have to work fast if they want to take advantage of these grants. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said that in order to be eligible for the grants, researchers must be ready for human testing by 2021.
Twelve million dollars likely won’t be enough to develop this vaccine, as most estimates say it costs roughly $1 billion to do so. Gates said that these grants are only the beginning, however. Teams with promising results will be eligible for additional funding.
Gates made the initial announcement at a symposium on epidemics organized by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine. The timing of the event was meant to correspond to the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 Spanish outbreak. It’s estimated that nearly 50 million people died as a result of the disease. Gates warned that a similar outbreak today could kill as many as 33 million in the first six months, despite advances in medicine.
Gates and Page are optimistic regarding the prospects of a universal flu vaccine, but not everyone in the medical community agrees. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that such a vaccine may be impossible to produce.
Updated on May 12: Added information regarding a recently released simulation of the flu virus’ impact.