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One hundred years ago, a severe flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people, or one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. If a highly contagious and lethal airborne pathogen like the 1918 influenza were to take hold in today’s world, it’s estimated that nearly 33 million people worldwide would die in six months.

That’s why Bill Gates has repeatedly warned that a pandemic is the greatest immediate threat to humanity—and it’s also one of the reasons behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new $12 million Universal Influenza Vaccine Development Grand Challenge.

Together with Lucy and Larry Page, co-founder of Google, the foundation is looking to fund innovative research projects that will ultimately lead to the development of universal influenza vaccines that protect against death from Influenza A and Influenza B for at least three to five years.

“Clearly, there is an unmet public health need for a transformative, game-changing universal influenza vaccine that will protect against all influenza strains for longer duration, alleviating the need for annual formulations and vaccinations and leading to a panacea for tackling pandemic and seasonal influenza disease threats,” reads an announcement on the foundation’s website.

Even 100 years after the deadliest flu pandemic—and on the heels of one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory—the effectiveness of current vaccines is underwhelming. For one, the influenza virus has a propensity to mutate, causing vaccines to miss their target surface antigens. Additionally, an inefficient manufacturing cycle and reporting schedule can result in vaccines targeting an incorrect strain of the mutated virus—something that happened this flu season, resulting in a vaccine that was only 36 percent effective.

The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenge is highlighted by its commitment to funding bold, innovative ideas that stem from a place of collaboration.

“Our collective belief is that innovation is catalyzed through rigorous collaboration and enriching of ecosystems, and we hope this Grand Challenge will stimulate creative thinking beyond the traditional influenza community,” the foundation announced.

In addition to being completely transformative research rather than incremental steps, study proposals for the Grand Challenge should include vaccines that have the potential to be used in all age groups around the world, especially in developing countries.

The foundation laid out plausible research ideas in four broad categories: 1) antigen-centric, or discovering new antigens/targets through machine learning/A.I.; 2) host-centric approaches that modify the human immune system; 3) technology-centric, or the application of radically new technologies for disease protections; and 4) enabling advances, including challenge models to quickly demonstrate safety and proof-of-concept.

The request for proposals announced late last week intends to fund pilot awards of up to $2 million over two years, with the anticipation that one or more pilot projects, on demonstration of promising proof-of-concept data, may be invited to apply for a full award up to $10 million. Full awards would fund IND-enabling and clinical studies. The universal flu vaccines should be ready to start clinical trials by 2021.

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