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By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent

LONDON, July 22 (Reuters) – Global health experts called on Wednesday for the creation of a $2 billion vaccine development fund to feed a pipeline of potential new shots against priority killer diseases like Ebola, MERS and the West Nile virus.

The fund would help bridge the gap between early stage drug discovery work carried out at universities and small biotech firms, and the late stage development and large-scale clinical trials needed to get a new vaccine to market.

“We can no longer sit back and ignore the chronic lack of progress in developing new vaccines, and improving existing ones,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, who co-wrote a paper calling for the creation of such a fund.

The money for the global vaccine fund should come from governments, foundations and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as from non-traditional sources such as the travel and insurance industries, the experts said in the paper, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Such a fund would pay for things like manufacturing vaccines to internationally accepted standards, and early and mid-stage clinical trials designed to test safety and proof-of-concept that a vaccine can generate an immune response.

Farrar praised the enormous global effort made to get clinical trials up and running to try to test experimental vaccines during West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, but he added:

“If just one of those promising vaccines had been through (early stage) phase I trials before the outbreak started, public health workers could have begun vaccinating people at the start…potentially saving thousands of lives.”

At least $2 billion would be needed at the outset, Farrar said, an amount that should be achievable even at a time when resources are scarce.

“Witness the cost of addressing the Ebola emergency –estimated at $8 billion to date with the final figure likely to be far higher,” he and his colleagues wrote.

“The lesson we take from the Ebola crisis is that disease prevention should not be held back by lack of money at a critical juncture when a relatively modest, strategic investment could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars further down the line.”

The proposed fund would invite competitive proposals from scientists, institutions and biotech firms, with an independent panel of scientists and funders required to review applications for financial support, the experts said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

File photo: AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo

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