As we continue our preparations for the World Vaccine Congress in Washington this April we are delighted to share our final interview from the Congress in Europe last year. This conversation with Dr Ofer Levy, Director, Precision Vaccines Programme, took place in October, but much of what we covered is still relevant to our continued emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic and preparation for future threats. It was an honour to speak to Dr Levy, and we are grateful that he made time in a busy Congress schedule to chat to us!
Dr Levy’s role with the FDA
Dr Levy has a full professional profile, with a variety of roles, but we asked him about his time on the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biologics Products Advisory Committee. Before the pandemic, he held this position for 4 years, when “other types of decisions” were ongoing. However, with the emergence of the pandemic, the Committee wanted someone with the “precision vaccinology approach” to join!
“I remember sitting on the Committee and voting for the Pfizer vaccine authorisation – as you know – that was the first coronavirus vaccine authorised in the United States. It was a historic moment and our deliberation was live-streamed!”
This decision was watched across the globe, with around “a hundred million people” tuning in!
Why precision vaccines?
As we heard from Dr Levy, the precision vaccines approach was of particular value to the FDA Advisory Committee. So, what does it involve and why is it important? He explains that, from a “public health perspective”, the simplest approach would be “one vaccine that worked perfectly for anybody in the population”. However, he identifies lots of research that demonstrates that “human immune responses vary” by many different factors.
This indicates a need to “bring precision medicine to vaccine development”. Thus, Dr Levy’s programme was established with a view to developing more precise vaccines for a range of precise immune needs!
What has COVID-19 taught us?
An area of particular interest at the Congress in Europe was what we should be taking from our experience of COVID-19 when we encounter an inevitable future threat. Luckily for us, Dr Levy has great insight into public health decisions and developments, so he was well-placed to offer some thoughts. One of the key lessons that he identifies is that we can “develop safe and effective vaccines faster than ever before”.
“Nobody thought we’d be able to take a process that takes 10 to 20 years, and compress it in less than a year.”
Although the circumstances were “remarkable” and the acceleration was “costly”, economic analysis on the effect of the pandemic shows that timing was of the essence for more than one reason. Speed, therefore, was critical, but we can’t leave safety behind. Dr Levy emphasises the importance of “rigorous” safety processes, from clinical trials to “ongoing safety surveillance”.
Another key lesson for Dr Levy was the reinforcement of the concept of precision vaccinology. He refers to variations in “how the viral infection played out” for different demographics. Then, with vaccines having different effects for different people, the “theme of precision immunology” is clear.
“The immune system varies by age, sex, and other demographic features, and one of the lessons from the pandemic is, we’re going to need to take that into account. And one of the tools the Precision Vaccines Programme uses to take that into account is human in vitro modelling.”
The ability to model the human immune system outside the body allows us to “de-risk and accelerate” vaccine development, testing vaccines and adjuvants for target populations.
What future threats are most concerning?
As work continues to allow us to move forward, out of the pandemic, the vaccine community is on high alert for future threats. We asked Dr Levy what we should be most sensitive to, and he identified “several”! However, the first threat he commented on was “complacency”.
“We’re all tired of this pandemic; we’re tired of the masks; we’re tired of all the booster vaccines and all the rest of it, but as sure as the sun will rise in the morning, sooner or later, there will be another pandemic. And God forbid it might even be worse than the one we just had.”
So, what should we do to prepare, and arm ourselves against complacency? Dr Levy suggests that “across the globe” we must strive to continue the investment into a range of essential services:
“the public health infrastructure, in the infectious disease surveillance, in the capacity to deliver safe and effective vaccines rapidly and at scale, in the vaccine research”
He contrasts the financial burden of these investments with the costs of “not investing in this infrastructure”.
Finally, why this Congress?
With all our speakers we ask about the benefits of our event to the community, which allows us to understand how we can continue to attract the best and the brightest to gather under one roof. Dr Levy loves the “ability to bring together exceptional people” from “around the world” from all aspects of the vaccine community. This results in “open, and fascinating sessions, debates, interactions, networking”.
“It’s really a very special event”.
We hope you enjoyed our interview with Dr Levy as much as we did, and we hope to reconnect with him at future events to continue the conversation! Stay tuned for further interviews as we lead up to the event in April, and make sure you get your tickets to join us there!