A breakthrough to fight outbreaks

The history of medical science is studded with discoveries that have stimulated huge leaps forward in how we tackle a disease — from long before Alexander Fleming’s famous, accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928 through to the present day, where new tools like big data and artificial intelligence are accelerating the development of novel drugs [1].

But arguably the single most important breakthrough that has revolutionized healthcare was the invention of vaccines. With as little as just one dose, a vaccine can trigger an immune response that can provide our bodies with long-lasting protection against potentially life-threatening pathogens.

Thanks to vaccination, smallpox was officially ‘eradicated’ in 1980, the first disease driven to extinction [2]. Polio has been on the brink of eradication for several years, and in many parts of the world, other serious diseases like diphtheria and pertussis have effectively been eliminated from the population as a result of successful vaccination programs [3].

Such is their life-saving legacy, The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes vaccines as the most important invention that has had the greatest impact on the world’s health next to clean water [4].

Did you know?

  • 1980

    the year smallpox was declared eradicated thanks to vaccines [2]

  • 70%

    of emerging diseases originate from animals [7]

  • >5

    new infectious diseases emerge in humans every year [7]

The pandemic forecast

The pandemic declared by WHO in 2020, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has highlighted how vaccines continue to be as valuable to us now as they have ever been. “Vaccines remain the solution to tackling infectious diseases,” explains Anissa Boumlic-Courtade, Director of our Bioprocessing Strategy Operationalization.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in its scale, causing millions of deaths worldwide and severe health and economic shockwaves that will continue to impact us for many years to come.

While the recent pandemic has been by far the worst global health event of the 21st century, it’s only one of several infectious threats we’ve faced over the last 100 years since the explosion of Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920 [5].

In the late 1950s, the Asian flu claimed more than a million lives, with almost as many deaths resulting from the Hong Kong flu pandemic a decade later. We’re still battling with HIV/AIDS, which spread rapidly during the 1980s and ‘90s and continues to blight many parts of the world to this day. During the first two decades of the 21st century, we’ve had to tackle the emergence of swine flu, the coronaviruses SARS and MERS, and several outbreaks of Ebola and Zika viruses.

The threat posed by emerging infectious diseases will only increase in the future [6]. The accessibility and speed of worldwide travel means it is easier than ever for infections to cross borders. Urban populations are also booming, which provide an abundance of potential hosts living in close proximity to one another, encouraging rapid transmission of diseases.

But the primary reason behind the likelihood of pandemics becoming more commonplace is our more frequent contact with sources of novel pathogens. As Boumlic-Courtade explains: “There are many ecological reasons why viruses will continue to emerge. As humans, we are impacting more and more ecosystems. We are getting closer to virus reservoirs in certain regions, which is increasing the risk of spillage in the future.”

Practically all pandemics, and 70% of emerging diseases, are zoonoses — meaning they originate in animal populations then jump to humans. Already, more than five new diseases emerge in humans every year [7]. And as we encroach on more of the natural world to live, farm, escape climate change or to consume and trade wildlife, we increase the probability of giving novel pathogens that opportunity to find new and abundant host populations.

Fighting pandemics hand in hand

The Covid-19 pandemic has once again illustrated the catastrophic damage a highly infectious disease can cause globally, but it has also drawn attention to our collective capability to rapidly recognize and respond to threats. Vaccines offering protection against severe Covid-19 were developed, tested, manufactured and distributed in a timeline spanning mere months, a colossal scientific feat.

Tackling the pandemic has demanded close collaboration between governments, academia, industry and other organizations to share resources, funds and knowledge. And it’s this kind of collaborative effort that will also be key to our preparedness for combating future outbreaks of pathogens with pandemic potential.

TRANSVAC, led by the European Vaccine Initiative, is one of several projects designed to promote collaboration across the sphere of vaccine research, development, and manufacturing [8]. With funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, TRANSVAC’s mission is two-fold.

On one hand, the project is geared towards accelerating the development of safe, effective and affordable vaccines by providing access to the necessary resources, skills and partners. Further to that objective, the TRANSVAC-DS project aims to build a sustainable vaccine infrastructure across Europe to ensure that the initiative creates a holistic and sustainable support network of partners that will continue to collaborate beyond the boundaries of TRANSVAC [9]. As Boumlic-Courtade puts it: “The ultimate goal is to ensure that the success rate for vaccines is higher than it is today — to decrease the attrition rate of vaccines and make sure that they're not just sitting in labs but will go into industry and be commercialized.”

TRANSVAC unites research and government institutions, life science companies, and logistical and manufacturing expertise. In collaboration with Vaccine Formulation Institute, we joined the project in May 2019, specifically for the purpose of sharing our knowledge and experience in vaccine development processes [10].

“We are providing training courses to support the scientists and engineers of the future. Specifically, we’re aiming at bridging the gap between research and manufacturing. Our role is to train them on developing vaccine processes and implementing best practices to increase the cost-effectiveness of processes. We’re providing expertise from our own engineers and scientists and sharing some of our case studies and learnings that we’ve accumulated over the last 20 years,” said Boumlic-Courtade.

“There's also the opportunity to have a closer look at our machines and systems for producing and purifying vaccines, and to understand how these are operated. They learn how to conduct small-scale process development,” she elaborated. “It’s about being pragmatic. The earlier you do the things right, the easier you can scale up.”

The next generation of vaccines

Our contribution to TRANSVAC is just one of many collaborations aimed at improving vaccine development and manufacturing we’re involved in. Our M-Lab Collaboration Centers have been set up as hands-on spaces to share technical knowledge, skills and best practices, and we’ve joined more than 80 vaccine projects alone in support of the fight against Covid-19 [11].

We worked with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute to develop scalable vaccine manufacturing processes, which ultimately enabled the mass production of one of the Covid-19 vaccines in use across the world today [12]. “We contributed to translating the platform into an industrial environment,” said Boumlic-Courtade.

Traditionally, vaccines deliver harmless attenuated (weakened) or inactive forms of diseases designed to trigger protective immunity. But we need innovative technologies, like viral vectors and messenger RNA (mRNA) platforms, which can be repurposed more rapidly to respond to emerging threats.

“The typical vaccine approach is that you have to start from scratch every time you have a new virus,” said Boumlic-Courtade. “In order to be more agile and respond better to future trends, and also to the population increase, we need to think about modernizing vaccine processes and using the most recent technologies.”

Decentralize against diseases

Agile platforms that can greatly accelerate vaccine research and development is one piece of the preparedness puzzle. Another is the ability to manufacture different vaccines in large quantities, quickly and safely. One way we’re trying to help achieve this is by providing single-use technologies [13].

Single-use components are prepackaged sterile products and tubes that can be plugged into flexible production lines. Not only do these out-of-the-box technologies reduce the cleaning associated with traditional manufacturing methods, speeding up production, but make it possible for one location to create a range of different vaccines or other biological products by swapping out single-use components.

“Today, it's a very centralized model, meaning there are only a few sites across the world focusing on research and development, and manufacturing,” said Boumlic-Courtade. “The pandemic has really highlighted the need to decentralize manufacturing or to expand and have more sites in the world to strengthen the supply chain.”

“You can't just build sites and wait for a pandemic, so it's really thinking about how in the future, we could be more agile and manufacture multiple biological modalities on one site, so we can adapt either to a pandemic or to local need, or to a surge in certain diseases,” Boumlic-Courtade explains.

Flexible vaccine platforms and facilities that make manufacturing more efficient and cost-effective should allow us to better prioritize and respond to neglected tropical diseases. “My hope is that these diseases will no longer be neglected because at any time a disease can become a priority when it reaches a certain level of infection,” said Boumlic-Courtade.

Any local outbreak could become the next pandemic. Infectious diseases are a global challenge and creating the right environment to support the development of new technologies that can solve tomorrow’s problems is a global responsibility. Collaborative projects like TRANSVAC are key, bridging the gaps between academia and industry, government institutes and international organizations.

“Our company has the ability to really support this industry and put powerful and productive collaborations in place to advance new technologies, bring new products to market that can transform manufacturing, and ultimately, save more lives,” said Boumlic-Courtade.

TRANSVAC2 has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement N° 730964.

TRANSVAC-DS has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement N° 951668.  

In 2012, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. Three years later, these were adopted by all member states. We are committed that our work will help to achieve these ambitious targets. Participating in the TRANSVAC collaboration project fits under ‘‘Goal 17 – Partnerships for the goals: encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.’ By sharing our expertise in vaccine development processes, we are bridging the gap between research and manufacturing, and helping to train the vaccine scientists and engineers of tomorrow

Learn more about SDGs

Work With Us

Your will to fight diseases is infectious.

Do you believe that collaboration is the key to fighting diseases? Then work with us towards our common goal: global health. If curious minds come together – motivated by the same ambition – things actually change. We count on your contribution.

View All Jobs Join our Talent Zone
Is fighting cancer precisely what you want to do? Is fighting cancer precisely what you want to do?