Trinity Challenge launches to fund pandemic protection

A former Chief Medical Officer for England has kicked off a multi-million pandemic-proofing fund...
22 September 2020

Interview with 

Sally Davies, Former Chief Medical Officer for England


Two facemasks crossed on a red background.


Even as we’re struggling with this pandemic, many scientists are watching warily for the next pandemic - whatever it might be. For this reason, former Chief Medical Officer for England Dame Sally Davies has just launched the Trinity Challenge: a multi-million pound fund to support ideas that might protect us against the next worldwide disease. The money comes from a range of sources including the University of Cambridge, the Gates Foundation, Google, and Facebook. Sally joined Phil Sansom and Chris Smith...

Sally - Well while everyone else faces the here and now, which is terribly important, we've been thinking about how to prevent the next one. Because every five years in this century we've had an outbreak which has become a pandemic, including ebola, SARS, MERS, Zika, and of course the 2009-10 flu, which we were lucky - it was mild. What are we missing? We need better ways to identify what is out there that might come out and impact on humans. And once we've got it, surely we should be able, if we prepared and thought about it effectively, to respond better. And then finally, the third area is recovery: how to come back together again, not only as a society, but without damaging our economies too much. So we're trying to bring together people to look at these three different areas. And we've got 22 wonderful founder members who are contributing not only funding, but more importantly, data and people. I think you could call it colliding data science with public health - whether it's genomic data, behavioural data, economic mobility, health - in a different way, so that we're better prepared.

Chris - Why has this taken so long to implement though Sally? Because as you highlight in this century, we've seen so many examples of this happening again and again and again, and with increasing frequency; why has it taken this one to teach us a lesson? Why have we not done this before?

Sally - We couldn't have done what we're trying to do five years ago, actually, because it relies on having the data there, with engineers and data architects who know how it works, how it looks. This couldn't have been done five years ago, but it can now; and we have to do it now or we will be remiss.

Chris - How much money have you got? What's your firepower looking like on this?

Sally - We're aiming for a hundred million because we want to do three challenge rounds, one a year for the next three years. This is about making a difference; so people need money for recognition and to help them move it into the next stage but it's not about getting rich.

Phil - Sally, can you just make it very clear for me: what's the kind of thing that I could come to you and you'd say, “yes, here's the big bucks”?

Sally - Okay, so is there a way that we can pick up a spike of a new virus in the SARS family by looking at sewage, but make it easy? Is there a way that if we looked at all the viruses in bats that pharma companies could make pre-pandemic vaccines that they could tweak so they were ready if that one came out of the box? Or that they could look with AI at all the possible libraries of drugs and see which ones are on the shelf that might work? 

Phil - Is there a risk, Sally, that these partly private enterprises you're funding are maybe not as appropriate as a public one to tackle what is public health?

Sally - I don't think so. I think that public health does not have the data they need, nor do they have the great skills of AI and machine learning. We have to bring in different academics, different data sources, and it's no secret that these platform companies have taken some of the best academics too. We need the best brains wherever they are in the world. Geeks and nerds need to come together and solve these problems.

Phil - That's on the supply end, but once you've got your product, whatever it is out the other end... there's been discussion about this in the context of a vaccine as well. If a vaccine does eventually get created, who's going to get it? Some people think it should be free. When it comes to your sort of projects, who's going to get them?

Sally - It is not our job to put them into practice, but they won't win if they're terrifically expensive solutions that could only be used by the rich nations. We are interested in the global good and global products. We have the support of the World Health Organization as a delivery organisation, and they may well help us with judging. So we're looking for insights and tools that are affordable, that can be used across the world, and then we're going to hand them off to multilaterals, to delivery partners: people who make things happen, but don't do the research and this innovative thinking. We're filling a hole.


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