Grand Challenges Annual Meeting
October 26, 2016
Thank you. It’s great to be here. I want to thank Richard Branson and Secretary of State Patel for joining us today. I look forward to our discussion.
When we launched our Grand Challenges initiative 12 years ago with Wellcome and others, we modeled it on the grand challenge formulated more than a century ago by the German mathematician, David Hilbert. His list of important unsolved problems has encouraged innovation in mathematics research ever since.
But two centuries earlier, Britain had already experimented with its own grand challenge: the problem of navigation at sea.
In the early 1700s, mariners established their latitude by measuring the altitude of the sun at noon. But to determine longitude, they had to rely on an inexact combination of heading, speed, and intuition. This approach was known as dead reckoning – and its name says it all. Risky guesswork led to a series of devastating maritime disasters.
In 1714, Parliament established the Longitude Prize to encourage development of a navigational tool that Britain’s navy could use to fix a ship’s longitudinal location.
John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter and clockmaker, took up the challenge. And the marine chronometer he invented – using celestial navigation to calculate longitude at sea – revolutionized navigation and greatly increased the safety of long-distance sea travel.
Three hundred years after Harrison’s breakthrough, the British government rekindled the Longitude Prize with a £10 million [pound] fund to help solve one of the biggest challenges of this century. A distinguished panel of experts narrowed a long list to six of the most pressing challenges, and the British public voted – and I think voted wisely – for the one they thought was the most urgent: the problem of antimicrobial resistance.
It is no coincidence that antimicrobial resistance was one of the scientific tracks here and that Nesta hosted a session on the AMR prize. The world needs a cost-effective, rapid, and easy-to-use test to reduce misdiagnosis of microbial infections and more effectively target the use of treatments for HIV, TB, malaria, and gut and pneumococcal diseases.
The great thing about initiatives like Grand Challenges and the Longitude Prize is that they generate new ideas that might not otherwise see the light of day – and make it easier to turn the best ones into solutions to our most pressing problems.
When we began Grand Challenges, there was virtually no global market mechanism to encourage the development of innovations to tackle the health and development challenges of low-income countries.
Today, a growing list of partners – from governments to research institutions and private foundations – have embraced the Grand Challenges approach. This growing ecosystem, is enabling good ideas to grow and creativity to flourish in scientific research.
And innovative global alliances like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and The Global Fund to Fight AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, are helping create the incentives and the predictability the private sector needs to bring new products to market.
By ensuring that everyone is pulling from the same end of the rope, these partnerships are also making development aid go further – with greater impact – than ever before.
We’ve made enormous progress in global health and development – and yet, as we all know, there is still have a long way to go.
Nearly 6 million children die every year – mostly in poor countries and mostly from preventable causes. Hundreds of millions more go through life sick and undernourished, limiting their productivity and sapping the resources of developing countries. So it’s critical that we continue to invest in innovation.
Philanthropic capital from our foundation and from investors like Richard (Branson) can help with some of the riskier bets in R&D. But fundamentally, innovation starts with government support for research labs and universities where scientists are working on groundbreaking insights that entrepreneurs can turn into products that change the world.
Reflected in the agenda of this Grand Challenges conference are two areas we particularly need to prioritize.
First, new tools to reduce the burden of infectious diseases, improve child health, and address rapidly emerging threats such as future epidemics and drug-resistant microbes.
This includes new solutions to prevent and treat HIV and tuberculosis . . . faster ways to combat the spread of epidemics like Ebola and Zika . . . scalable mosquito control solutions to fight malaria and dengue fever . . . and new approaches to make sure children receive the nutrition and nurturing to reach their full potential.
Second, we need to provide smallholder farmers in Africa with the resources they need to increase their productivity – so there is food security for them and for a growing world population.
With continued investment in research and innovation, the UK government can ensure that schools like Oxford, Imperial College, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine continue to produce world-class scientific talent and ensure that researchers have the resources they need to pioneer the breakthroughs the world needs.
You’ve had a chance to hear from some of the top British scientists here this week.
People like Nick Hamon, whose team at the International Vector Control Consortium is leading the effort to develop new insecticides to fight mosquitos that carry malaria.
Austin Burt, whose team at Imperial College has developed a potentially revolutionary way to suppress the mosquito species primarily responsible for transmitting malaria in Africa.
And Clare Elwell, a researcher at University College London – who you just heard from – who is pioneering new approaches to measure children’s cognitive development.
Adrian Hill, at Oxford, is another example of the UK’s remarkable scientific brain trust. Hill has devoted his career to developing a vaccine against malaria. But more than that, his research holds promise for a new class of vaccines that uses the body’s cellular immunity, rather than antibodies, to attack diseases.
This could prove helpful in developing vaccines for a range of complex diseases like malaria, hepatitis C, TB and HIV. Hill has used this advance in trialling an Ebola vaccine, and he has another candidate in the works for Zika.
The continued support of the UK government is critical in the fight against pandemics. There is a significant chance that a more infectious epidemic than Ebola or Zika will come along in the next 20 years. We cannot build a wall to hold back the next pandemic. We have to deal with them at the source.
To aid in this effort, Wellcome – in partnership with the governments of Norway and India, our foundation, and the World Economic Forum – announced the creation of a new public-private Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to work on vaccines against pathogens of epidemic potential. This new coalition will partner with the UK Vaccines Network funded by the UK Department of Health.
Researchers across the broader Commonwealth of Nations are also producing innovative health technologies. Scott O’Neill of Monash University in Australia – one of the Gates Foundation’s first Grand Challenges grantees and a speaker here yesterday – has developed another remarkable approach to mosquito control that could play a key role in protecting 2.5 billion people around the world from Zika, dengue, Chikungunya, and Yellow fever.
These four deadly viruses are primarily transmitted by a single mosquito species: Aedes aegypti.
Scott has figured out a way to introduce a bacteria called Wolbachia into Aedes aegypti to prevent these mosquitos from passing viruses on to people. That bacteria is then passed on to subsequent generation of mosquitos to provide continued protection for people.
Today, we are announcing that our foundation – together with Wellcome and the governments of the UK, U.S., Colombia, and Brazil – are committing $21 million to fund two large-scale projects to measure Wolbachia’s impact in reducing mosquito-borne illnesses in Latin America.
If these efforts are successful, Wolbachia could be scaled up across the tropics and sub-tropics in the next decade.
These kinds of advances in global health have the potential to save millions of lives. And they’re only possible when we identify our greatest challenges and give scientists the resources they need to solve them.
As I mentioned, we also have to accelerate innovation in agriculture. Despite advances in food and agriculture production, hunger and malnutrition still pose daunting challenges to more than a billion people.
We need to improve the yields of crop and livestock – the main source of nutrition and income for 70 percent of the world’s poor. And we have to help poor farmers adapt to a changing climate.
Some of you had the chance to hear yesterday from Giles Oldroyd at a session on crop research. We all know that science isn’t magic, but Professor Oldroyd is doing something magical that could have an enormous impact.
He is leading a research team at the John Innes Center to design cereal plants that produce their own nitrogen fertilizer –– harnessing atmospheric nitrogen through symbiosis with soil bacteria. This would enable small-holder farmers – who can’t afford to buy synthetic nitrogen fertilizers - to significantly increase their crop-yields. And it would limit the environmental impact of these inorganic fertilizers.
There is also a vibrant plant science research center in Norwich, thanks in part to Lord Sainsbury’s investments – including the Sainsbury Lab, which is well known for advances in understanding how plants respond to diseases.
Livestock plays a critical role in food security and the rural economy in many developing countries, by providing food and a source of income for smallholder farmers. But livestock diseases kill a quarter of these animals every year.
DfID deserves enormous credit for taking on this challenge. It is one of the major funders of a $30 million challenge to encourage private sector innovation to develop better vaccines to protect livestock from Brucellosis, an infectious disease causing abortion and reproductive failure in livestock, that can also be transmitted to humans.
DfID has also fostered other inventive public-private sector partnerships to develop new vaccines and drugs for livestock diseases – as well as for human infectious diseases through product development partnerships like IVCC.
The world needs innovative leadership now more than ever.
The complexity of our most urgent global problems – extreme poverty, the persistence and spread of disease, feeding a growing world – requires that we invest in science and put our best minds to work on finding solutions.
As the UK seeks to negotiate its exit from the EU, it is critical that the government steps up its investments in science and innovation to meet the challenges of tomorrow – and to grow the UK’s economy.
A study a few years ago looked at the impact of government funding in Europe for global health R&D. It showed that for every dollar invested by governments in global health R&D, an additional dollar was invested by the public, private, and philanthropic sectors in European laboratories, universities and companies. These investments create thousands of high-value jobs that contribute to the quality of European research – and to economic growth.
If we want more and better jobs, greater equality, and a better healthier life for our children, then we need to invest in the science and technology that will cement the UK’s place as a leading global innovation hub.
If we want to keep safe from the spread of disease, tackle extreme poverty, combat the causes of forced migration, and deal with the challenge of climate change, then we have to apply that same relentless focus on innovation to these problems.
Our foundation has a rich set of partnerships with universities and research institutes across the UK that deliver the life-changing innovations the developing world so desperately needs – innovations that are only possible with the British government’s continued commitment to R&D funding and international development.
I look forward to continuing to work with an outward-looking, global Britain that plays a vital role in innovating not only for itself, but also for the world.