Rapid-response vaccination
Rising population levels drive an increased risk of high-fatality global epidemics. Solving this challenge protects existing and future generations. Technologies developed may also improve the outcomes of existing diseases like HIV and TB.
Why focus on rapid-response vaccines?
Our population continues to increase towards 9 billion, bringing with it rising population densities and higher risks of high-fatality global epidemics. In our now globally connected world, more than 3 billion passengers travel each year by air, covering trillions of miles. Where geography once provided a natural barrier to epidemics, this increasing connectivity between internationally mobile populations removes these barriers, leaving much smaller "effective distances" between populations.

While the spread of a contagion through a population depends greatly on the characteristics of the pathogen, increasing the number of people through which it can spread in a particular area and reducing the effective distances between large populations, increases the risk.

As growing populations in emerging economies impinge on natural habits and intensify industrial farming practises, the increased contact between animals and humans intensifies risk through increased exposure to blood and tissue during processing. This increased risk is particularly high in the bushmeat trade.

When combined, rising population density, reduced effective distance and a higher risk human-animal interface present a problem that requires urgent attention.
What are the opportunities?
Global epidemics are a huge problem that have the attention of some of the world's largest healthcare bodies.

In 2015 the WHO published its initial list of diseases most likely to cause major epidemics that require urgent R&D intervention. The recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika and the late-stage success of the Ebola vaccine, developed at a speed that greatly outpaced the traditional vaccine timeline (10-15 years) highlight both the urgent need and real possibility of a rapid-response vaccine platform.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a multi-stakeholder partnership backed by supporters like the Gates Foundation, Norwegian Government and Wellcome Trust was launched at Davos earlier this year, raising an initial investment of $460 million from private, public and philanthropic organisations.

To tackle the worst case scenario, the complete response process, from pathogen identification, vaccine development through to mass immunisation needs to move faster than the virus can spread to minimise casualties.

To develop solutions to this challenge, we can break the problem into its constituent parts:


While vaccines can be remarkably complex, the principle behind vaccination is remarkably simple.

All communication and recognition in biology is based on chemical structure. Like a lock and key, or a left hand and a left-handed glove, the shape-specific interactions between biological structures are at the heart of processes like immune response.

There are a few key types of vaccine, but they all work on the same principle.

To vaccinate a host (human or animal) against a particular pathogen (e.g a bacterium or virus), you need to take a key structural fragment from the pathogen (called an antigen) and deliver it to the host in a way that the host can raise an immune system (create antibodies) without dying in the process.

To tackle the worst case scenario, the complete response process, from pathogen identification, vaccine development through to mass immunisation needs to move faster than the virus can spread to minimise casualties.

Problem Breakdown:

To develop solutions to this challenge, we can break the problem into its constituent parts, many of which can be prepared for in advance of an outbreak.

1. Pathogen Identification

  • What are the key structural features?
  • Which antigen makes the best fragment for the vaccine?
  • What is the life cycle of the pathogen?

Example opportunities could be:

  • Micro scale bio-sensing methods for rapid identification, scaled down for field use
  • Machine learning approaches for morphology prediction: tracking existing viruses, predicting their structures in the future, identifying those changes that increase risk of either spread or mortality.
2. Vaccine Development

Developing a vaccine that is effective, safe and easy to manufacture reproducibly is incredibly challenging. Each new vaccine has to go through a rigorous assessment processes, ensuring both patient safety and the manufacturing process, which can greatly affect the nature of the vaccine are fully understood and controlled. While essential, these processes create a barrier to adaptive vaccine manufacture.

Example opportunities here could be:

  • Novel vaccination strategies: using simpler structures that are easier to manufacture
  • Improvements to in-line manufacture monitoring

One of the most exciting development in the area is the concept of "plug and play" DNA/RNA vaccines. While challenging to develop, they would be structurally less complex than traditional biologic therapeutics, which come with a range of manufacturing and purification challenges related to protein folding and glycosylation pattern.

3. Scalable Vaccine Production

There are lots of opportunities here to develop new platforms that allow for safe, modular, scalable production of vaccines, allowing their rapid manufacture in response to a crisis.

A growing field for vaccine and bio-therapeutic manufacture is in the use of plants, which offer a number of advantages over traditional biosynthesis platforms like CHO. The Ebola vaccine ZMapp for example, was produced in the leaves of tobacco plants.

Example opportunities here could be:

  • Development of novel rapid-response production platforms that are reliable and scalable
  • Improvement of extraction and purification methods for all biologic manufacture platforms
Who are we looking for?
We think this challenge would benefit from people with backgrounds in:

  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Protein purification
  • Synthetic biology
  • Vaccinology
  • Medicine
  • Plant science
  • Biosynthesis
  • Biologics manufacture
  • Optimisation
  • Systems engineering
  • Statistics
  • Machine learning
  • Data science

If you have a different STEM background, but you're keen to solve problems in this challenge area, please apply, the most interesting things happen at the interface between skill-sets!
Specific challenges
We're currently designing a number of specific challenges in this area.
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Can vaccine production beat the speed at which epidemics spread? Can you solve The Frontier challenge?
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