Gates Sees Vaccine Technology Promise as Drug Resistance Rises

(Bloomberg) -- Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates sees emerging vaccine technologies as one of the most promising realms in the pursuit of new medicines amid the rising threat of drug-resistant strains of deadly diseases.

Vaccines that use a mirror image of DNA to halt the growth of bacteria and viruses appear capable of speeding development of the prevention tools dramatically, Gates said in an interview. Moderna Therapeutics Inc. and CureVac GmbH are two companies developing the approach, Gates said, which is based on a genetic messenger called mRNA.

“Even if a new pandemic broke out of something you’d never seen before, you might be able to get a new vaccine developed in months,” as opposed to years, he said on the sidelines of a meeting in London focused on malaria.

Gates, whose foundation focuses on illnesses such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, is funding a global fight against an array of infections as their ability to evade current treatments mounts, raising concerns about the response to new outbreaks. The co-founder of Microsoft Corp. also sees a threat from weaponized pathogens, warning last year that countries should raise their defenses against potential bioterrorism attacks.

Disaster Warning

Gates has also warned of a disaster if drug-resistant forms of malaria reach Africa, where the disease is most prevalent. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charity, is leading an effort to battle the insect-borne disease, unveiling an additional $1 billion in investment Wednesday. It’s part of a broader plan to combat malaria after the number of cases grew significantly in 2016 for the first time in a decade.

Eradicating the illness will depend on progress in science and technology, including the technique for editing gene sequences called Crispr, Gates said. Scientists are experimenting with modifying mosquitoes’ DNA so that the females that spread malaria become sterile or produce mostly male offspring, which don’t bite. New surveillance tools and computer modeling also will play a key role, he said.

“The problem is that most people with malaria don’t have much money, so their voice in the marketplace in terms of drug priorities from a pure profit point of view will never match rich-world diseases,” said Gates, the world’s second-richest person with a fortune of about $93 billion. “We need philanthropic and government money going both to academic groups and to drug companies.”

Certain variants of the parasite aren’t halted by artemisinin, the most potent medicine available. These resistant strains have been detected in five Asian countries and risk taking hold in Africa, according to Novartis AG, which makes a version of the drug. Gates said the pipeline of new malaria drugs use different mechanisms and will help nations respond.

Pilot projects for the first malaria vaccine -- developed by GlaxoSmithKline Plc and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative -- are due to begin in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi later this year. There’s an opportunity to improve on the durability of that product with the next generation of treatments, Gates said in a speech at the event.

Gates is also counting on research into the bacteria that inhabit your gut to deliver some of the biggest breakthroughs in the coming years. Rapid advances are taking place in the study of the microbiome -- bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the human digestive tract -- helping researchers explore the cause of malnutrition, Gates said in the interview.

More than 100 startups are looking at the field, “leading to lots of insights for many different diseases,” he said.

Investors ranging from venture capitalists Seventure Partners and Flagship Pioneering Inc. to pharma giants Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Johnson & Johnson have pledged at least $125 million to startups exploring the use of the microbiome to fight cancer in recent years.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.