Share this article
Now more than ever, healthcare entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world are looking for effective, accessible health solutions to the daunting challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the sixth installment of MIT Solve’s interactive Solving from Anywhere webinar series held on September 1, Pooja Wagh, Director, Results Measurement and Lead, Health Community, MIT Solve, moderated an in-depth conversation on innovation to accelerate global health with Taryn Rogalski-Salter PhD, Head of Global Regulatory Strategy & Operations, Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute; Dr. Vanessa Kerry, CEO, Seed Global Health and Associate Professor and Director, Program in Global Public Policy and Social Change, Harvard Medical School; and Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Founder and CEO, Solver LifeBank.
While the insightful discussion focused mainly on the current threat that Covid-19 poses to public health systems around the globe, everyone on the panel emphasized that overcoming the pandemic will take more than just a vaccine. The international health community’s short-term goals might be tied to vaccine development, but what about proactive, permanent solutions? How can we ensure the distribution of this vaccine will be done in an equitable way, one that reaches those who need it the most, wherever they may be?
To hear the full conversation, watch the webinar recording.
Getting to “the last mile”
Giwa-Tubosun likens this challenge to “getting to the last mile,” something she said can only be accomplished once we build and invest in comprehensive, long-lasting health infrastructure that provides for the needs of communities through an intersectional effort.
She highlighted that a crucial step in getting to this “last mile” is to create a “flexible, smart distribution platform” that can not only deliver a Covid-19 vaccine, but also essential medical supplies.
Giwa-Tubosun’s health tech startup LifeBank has answered this call by supplying blood, oxygen, and now Covid-19 diagnostic tests to patients across Nigeria. While LifeBank is beginning to make new strides in partnerships with governments and NGOs, its mission hasn’t changed. In fact, its Covid-19 response has brought even more stakeholders to the table, from banks and public institutions to private investors and frontline workers.
“We’re all connected”
Rogalski-Salter, Head of Global Regulatory Strategy & Operations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, agreed with Giwa-Tubosun’s holistic “last mile” perspective and said that, as an infectious disease, Covid-19 “knows no borders.”
“We work across all functions—clinical, non-clinical, manufacturing, and policy—because that last mile also sometimes depends on policy recommendations and medical recommendations and standard of care,” she said on her team’s approach to vaccine development. She also highlighted that the perspective of investors and nonprofits is another key point to consider when constructing a vaccine development program that meets these “very disparate needs.”
Kerry shared a similar sentiment on the need for international collaboration as a vital instrument to fight Covid-19. For her, this means investing in a global immune system that is sustainable and capable of serving community-focused health needs while also preventing future outbreaks.
“What we’re talking about is this idea that health is fundamental to our global wellbeing, both on an individual level, a community level, a national level, and a global level of security,” she said. Kerry added that vaccine development focused solely within the confines of a single country, or “vaccine nationalism,” won’t be enough to return to business as usual. Even if 100 percent of Americans are immunized, for example, the countries from which the US imports manufactured products may still face risks from the virus, and may still be vulnerable without global immunization.
“What is going to make us safe is if we hit a basic threshold of immunization around the world, so that you’re reaching the people most at risk of being sick from Covid, vulnerable populations, and healthcare workers,” she said.
Resilience beyond Covid-19
Rogalski-Salter told the group that a harmonized, intersectional approach to vaccine development also invites a certain degree of transparency needed to move forward efficiently and successfully. She highlighted the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) and its current work on papers related to pre-clinical testing as an example of something that, if shared on record, could save other developers from repeating steps in the process.
“We’re all in this together… we need to work together, learn together, and institutionalize these learnings so that when the next crisis comes, we’re able to reactivate and not make the same stumbles as we’ve made before,” she said. “Let’s take the best and let’s document it.”
Both Kerry and Giwa-Tubosun made their closing points with important reminders and calls to action for those with the means to support this reimagined global health system.
As research and clinical trials bring potential vaccine development closer to fruition, Kerry cautioned against looking for a “silver bullet,” or a quick and easy fix that will universally eliminate the threat of Covid-19.
“This is about putting in the proper, deep systems, which take time, resources, and commitment to actually solve the problems,” she said. “You need the healthcare workforce, infrastructure, and supplies, and there has to be a willingness to put in the resources.”
To the global health community, Giwa-Tubosun made a clear call: invest now.
“Work with us; invest in systems like LifeBank that solve the critical issues that health systems in developing countries have, so that when an emergency hits, there is someone there who already has the capacity, the knowledge, the focus, and the investment, and who built the system we need to reach the last mile.”
Looking for ways to make your virtual events more engaging? Check out Solve’s tips to host an engaging virtual event.
Solve intern Aidan McGovern contributed to this article.
Pooja Wagh, Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Dr. Vanessa Kerry, and Taryn Rogalski-Salter PhD speak during the Solving from Anywhere webinar "Session on Covid-19: Innovation to Accelerate Global Health and Vaccine Development" on September 1, 2020.