Expert insight

How will vaccines save us from future threats?

13 October 2023
  • Laetitia Bigger Director, Vaccines Policy

The groundbreaking work of Professors Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman was recently recognized, as they were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Their award was recognition for the research that ultimately enabled the development of safe and effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, and which has now spurred further research into how the technology may be applied to tackling other diseases.

It has also shone a light on the importance of the scientific research carried out by academics, and scientists and engineers working in biotech and pharmaceutical companies. The development of mRNA vaccines, as well as other vaccine technologies, such as vector vaccines and protein subunit vaccines, is the result of this thriving innovation ecosystem underpinned by decades of research and investment.

Vaccines have already saved more lives than any other medical invention, and they will continue to help us combat the world’s most pressing health challenges. Innovation continues with almost 260 vaccine candidates currently in development, and existing vaccines are continuously being improved – including new approaches to producing, storing, and administrating vaccines.

50M lives saved globally
90% cervical cancer cases prevented
500,000 AMR-related deaths prevented

Caring for an ageing population

The world is undergoing a major demographic shift. By 2050, the world’s population aged 60 years and older will double to 2.1 billion, having profound implications for healthcare systems worldwide. Vaccines can play a crucial role in managing this change, protecting this group from diseases like COVID-19, influenza, pneumonia, RSV, and shingles. Adult immunization programs are highly cost effective, helping to avoid hospital admissions and supporting people to live healthy lives.

Stopping future pandemics

Vaccines are crucial in helping us prepare for future health emergencies. Today, according to Airfinity, there are more than 700 vaccines for COVID-19 in development, including 36 “pan-vaccines”, designed to increase breadth of protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants and/or other coronaviruses.

The pharmaceutical industry is committed to supporting the 100 Days Mission, which aims to develop and deploy vaccines and treatments within 100 days of a new pandemic threat being identified. If this happens, recent research estimates that the likelihood of a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 taking place in the next decade drops from 27.5% to 8.1%. But to achieve this we have to inject a sense of urgency in how we put the right plans in place right now. If science is to respond even faster than it did against COVID-19, we must make innovation, rapid access to pathogen data for scientists, and surveillance central to pandemic preparedness plans.

There are also about 40 vaccines in clinical development targeting CEPI and WHO priority diseases with pandemic potential. Sustaining this innovation to develop the next wave of vaccine technologies will give us a head start in responding to future pandemic threats.

Tackling antimicrobial resistance

It is estimated that drug-resistant infections could cause 10 million deaths every year by 2050.

Whilst it is critical that we support the development of new antibiotics, vaccines also have a crucial role to play. By preventing infections, reducing disease severity, and lowering the risk for secondary infections, vaccines can reduce the need and misuse of antibiotics and slowing the spread of “superbugs”.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccines could prevent 500,000 AMR-related deaths annually. Strengthening routine immunization systems and improve coverage, as well as expanding use of some vaccines – such as typhoid and rotavirus vaccines – in particular in LMICs, will be critical to mitigate AMR .

Preventing or even eliminating cancer

Vaccines to protect against HPV (Human papillomavirus) can help to protect against up to 90% of cervical cancer cases. This gives us hope that cervical cancer could be eliminated within our lifetimes, saving the lives of millions of girls and women who won’t have to face this threat in the future.

Could vaccines offer hope for other cancers? The future is promising, as mRNA vaccines are being tested as a treatment for cancers, including melanoma and brain tumors.

Protecting us from climate-related disease outbreaks

The impact of climate change is causing warmer temperatures and heavier rainfall, which can have profound global health implications.

For example, a recent study has estimated that in some regions, climate change could lead to a 20% increase in mosquito-borne diseases over the next 30 years. This is the result of disease-carrying mosquitos moving into new regions, putting more people at risk.

Addressing climate change will require innovation across all sectors, including the pharmaceutical industry. Companies are researching and developing new solutions to improve people’s resilience against climate risks. Existing vaccines can protect against diseases like dengue, malaria and yellow fever, and the industry is working on future vaccines that could help protect against diseases like Chikungunya and Zika, while being committed to minimizing the environmental impact of its operations and products on the planet.

Realizing the full potential of new vaccines

It is estimated that vaccines could save more than 50 million lives globally in this decade alone. With hundreds of vaccine candidates currently in clinical trials, there is good reason to be optimistic. But if we are to fully benefit from this innovation, we must also work towards combating misinformation, and building the necessary trust so that people are confident in getting vaccinated.

Alongside this confidence, vaccination programs require the necessary infrastructure and workforce in place to be delivered – for immunization campaigns that cover an individual’s entire lifespan.

Vaccination is vital to achieving 14 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Vaccines have had an incredible impact in improving global health, and by working together, vaccine innovation can have an even greater impact, and light up a healthier future.