Gates, Wellcome and Mastercard launch $125 million fund to finance COVID-19 treatments

Jonathan Shieber

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard announced a new initiative yesterday to accelerate technologies designed to identify, assess, develop and scale treatments to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator will evaluate new and repurposed drugs and biologics to treat patients with COVID-19 in the immediate term, and other viral pathogens in the future, according to a statement from the Gates Foundation.

As part of the initiative, the three partners committed to "equitable access, including making products available and affordable in low-resource settings."

That's an issue right now as healthcare systems struggle with access to testing kits and potentially high-cost therapeutics developed by private industry. The government agencies tasked with responding to the outbreak apparently lack the resources to engage in such an initiative and are relying on the private sector to help.

The immediate goal for the new accelerator is to catalyze the evaluation and development of new and repurposed drugs and biologics to treat patients with COVID-19. 

Right now, there aren't any broad-spectrum antivirals or immunotherapies available to combat the spread of emerging pathogens -- and certainly none approved for use on COVID-19, according to the Gates Foundation statement.

Gates and Wellcome, a nonprofit foundation, are each contributing up to $50 million to the accelerator, with the Gates Foundation money pulled from its $100 million commitment to finance a COVID-19 response made in February.

“Viruses like COVID-19 spread rapidly, but the development of vaccines and treatments to stop them moves slowly,” said Mark Suzman, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a statement. “If we want to make the world safe from outbreaks like COVID-19, particularly for those most vulnerable, then we need to find a way to make research and development move faster. That requires governments, private enterprise, and philanthropic organizations to act quickly to fund R&D.”

The new accelerator will work with the World Health Organization, government and private sector funders and other organizations, along with regulators and policy-setting institutions, according to a statement, and will focus on everything from drug pipeline development through manufacturing and expanding production and distribution.

For the Gates Foundation, the cross-disciplinary approach was one of the lessons learned from its approach to containing the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

According to a statement from the foundation, the accelerator will operate as a joint initiative of the funders and will pursue three different strategies. It will identify compounds and potential novel therapies, work with industry partners and coordinate with regulators to get treatments into market.

“This virus is an unprecedented global threat, and one for which we must propel international partnerships to develop treatments, rapid diagnostics, and vaccines. Science is moving at a phenomenal pace against COVID-19, but to get ahead of this epidemic we need greater investment and to ensure research co-ordination," said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, in a statement. "The Therapeutics Accelerator will allow us to do this for potential treatments with support for research, development, assessment, and manufacturing. COVID-19 is an extremely challenging virus, but we’ve proved that through collaborating across borders we can tackle emerging infectious diseases.”