Philanthropy’s role in overcoming the pandemic through R&I


Ignasi López Verdeguer


This article has been commissioned for PEXnews.

Beyond funding, philanthropy’s patient, risk-taking, anticipative and collaborative approach is key in the landscape of Research and Innovation

The world is still living under the overwhelming weight of a health, social and economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, we have also witnessed the most extraordinary reaction from the Research and Innovation system to fight back, the system that has delivered efficient vaccines and a light at the end of the tunnel at an unprecedented speed.

The efforts are outstanding. Researchers and vaccine developers working around the clock and billions of euros invested by nations and big pharma are paving the way out of the emergency. If we take a closer look though, we also see that philanthropy has a catalyzing role and contributed to accelerating this battle. And, most importantly, we see how crucial robust participation of philanthropy in R&I is to facing future epidemics and other challenges that require new knowledge such as climate change or food security.

Philanthropy and the Oxford Vaccine
Professor Sarah Gilbert leads the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine programme. She and her research group have taken on a race against time in the design of a COVID-19 vaccine after the novel coronavirus was sequenced by Chinese scientists on early January last year. They fulfilled the expectations: not only their vaccine is highly effective but it is cheaper and easier to transport than alternatives.

How did they manage to develop the vaccine in such short time, many wonder, while it normally takes years to do so? Well, the last mile was accelerated by overlapping processes (tech development, regulatory…) but the race started long before. It has taken a whole research career, a myriad of collaborations and hundreds of experiments, publications and clinical trials that begun long before COVID-19 was making headlines. This story sheds a light on how R&I works to deliver solutions for society, a story through which we can deliberately pinpoint the role of philanthropy.

According to the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford, where she works, Gilbert started leading her own research group thanks to a vaccine development project grant from the Wellcome Trust in 2007. She soon also became the Programme Manager for a Strategic Award from the same foundation to the Jenner Institute, the world leading vaccine research institute associated with the University of Oxford.

In the last decade, Gilbert worked on an Ebola vaccine, a MERS vaccine (the Middle East respiratory syndrome that emerged in 2012) and others, improving the specific technology on which their COVID jab is now based. When SARS-CoV-2 appeared, its resemblance to MERS put the Oxford Group in a privileged position to complete the challenge quickly.

At this point, funding was still lacking for preclinical and initial clinical testing. This key funding was provided by CEPI in March 2020. CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is a global partnership launched in 2017 “to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics”. The Wellcome Trust, again, was a founding partner of this transformative initiative. The rest of the story is well known: the vaccine showed efficacy (up to 82,4% according to last studies[1]), was approved and, as these lines are written, is being administered all around the world.

This success story has been the result of the work of dozens of people, institutions and multiple funding sources, and it could not be otherwise. Of the £8bn that the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine cost, “only” 500 million were brought in by philanthropy but this funding has been instrumental.  Through this story, we can identify some specificities of the key role of philanthropy in R&I.

Innovation for society and agility: foundations and R&I
Foundations are especially good at covering the specific stages of technology transfer where other funding sources are less present. Tech transfer is the long path that takes an idea from research or from a lab to society, in the form of a new medicine for instance. In early stages of the tech transfer trip, industry and private investors are reluctant to step in because the financial risk is still too high and, at the same time, public resources start to fade as commercial possibilities appear. CEPI understands this process well and covered this funding valley in the Oxford project so the vaccine prototype could demonstrate its value.

The CEPI grant would not have served much if it had not reached the appropriate hands. A robust ecosystem of biomedical R&I that rewards and retains talent and is able to translate science into solutions is key. Philanthropy participates globally in funding thriving research ecosystems, infrastructures and research career development. The heroes of the story above are not only those on the quest for the Oxford vaccine, but also foundations and other non-profit donors, who, not only as grant-makers but also as systemic key actors, have had a significant role.

The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to begin with, and its commitment of 1.750$ million to fight coronavirus has been widely described. Their 100M$ grant in 2016 to Moderna, the developer of another successful vaccine against COVID-19, to support the development of mRNA-based technologies against various infectious diseases clearly illustrates the anticipatory role of foundations, but this is a story for another day.

There are also a myriad of foundations that have a crucial local impact and a growing global presence. In the Iberian peninsula, the “la Caixa” Foundation in Barcelona and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon structurally fund research biomedical centres that have produced impactful research and solid policy advice in a region hard-hit by the pandemic.

Making the most of their flexibility and ability to respond quickly, another key characteristics of philanthropy, these foundations, among others, have mobilized resources at an outstanding speed through open calls for projects. The “la Caixa” Foundation COVID-19 Express call, the Fondazione Cariplo collaborative call with the Lombardy region in Italy are some examples. The Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark committed 30 DKK million to a call for COVID-19 Research projects with the commitment to respond to researchers with an express evaluation in only 48 hours.

The pandemic has shown us our interdependence with the environment we live in and our extreme fragility. Research and Innovation and equitable access to knowledge are appearing as more important than ever. In this scene, foundations and donors play a growing role as key actors and ought to cover a crucial piece of the puzzle in building a future of smart, sustainable and equitable societies.

Ignasi López Verdeguer is Director, Department of Research and Innovation, “la Caixa” Foundation and Chair of the Research Forum of the European Foundation Centre

This article is inspired in the presentation given by the author at the Europhilanthropics 2020 conference of the European Foundation Centre

Tagged in: Covid-19


  1. ^ Covid-19: New data on Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine backs 12 week dosing interval. BMJ 2021;372:n326

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