When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were very few available drugs that could be available Test it right away As a treatment for this disease. Now, a A$1.5 billion initiative in Australia will search for technologies that could create medicines within weeks or months of a pandemic threat emerging.
“It’s a very ambitious effort,” says infectious disease researcher Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunology in Melbourne, Australia. She will lead the new center that will be based at the Institute.
The Cummings Center for Global Epidemiology (CGCPT) was launched on August 31 with a charitable donation of A$250 million (US$171 million) from Canadian entrepreneur Jeffrey Cumming. He was inspired to give the gift after he moved to Melbourne before the pandemic and saw the Doherty Institute become the first group outside of China to grow SARS-CoV-2 in a lab, contributing to global research efforts, Lewin says.
The Victorian state government has committed A$75 million over 10 years to the centre, which aims to fund A$1.5 billion over 20 years. Lewis says the center’s budget and long-term investment strategy make it unique. The center will focus on basic science, or “blue sky” research, and 30% of the institute’s funding will be given to international laboratories conducting research on epidemiological drugs, she said.
Similar efforts have been made focused on finding treatments for viruses that could potentially cause epidemics abroad. But these efforts mostly focus on creating small molecule drugs that are similar to existing antiviral drugs for COVID-19, such as Paxlovid, Lewin says. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a nonprofit in Seattle, Washington, provided $90 million for the Pandemic Antivirus Discovery Initiative in March. The US National Institutes of Health awarded $577 million to nine antiviral drug discovery centers for pathogens of epidemic concern in May. The German National Alliance for Epidemiology was founded in October last year.
CGCPT aims to go further and will be looking for an entirely new platform to create drugs that can be reused to find treatments for outbreaks of potentially pandemic pathogens, including influenza, coronaviruses, and even antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One approach might be a drug platform targeting nucleic acids, which would only need the genetic sequence of the virus to get started. Biology — drugs made of complex biological molecules — is another option, although it is currently expensive. If it can be made cheaper, Lewin says, it could be viable.
“Very little has been invested in treatments,” says Bruce Walker, an immunologist and infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Most other efforts focus on developing vaccines, but vaccines are not always the answer,” he says. With HIV, for example, there is still no effective vaccine, but treatments have turned AIDS into a treatable disease.
Raymond Schinazi, an organic chemist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is pleased that the center will focus on finding rapid treatments for emerging and recurrent viruses. Schinazi, who has invented more than 25 antivirals during his career, including the drugs found in the treatment of HIV Truvada, says Cummings’ gift is the largest single donation to epidemiological research.