Sabin Vaccine Institute is leading the way to tackling influenza as coronavirus pandemic shakes the world

Photo Credit: Esther Havens/Sabin Vaccine Institute

It’s a raging virus. Thousands have been sickened. The death toll is rising. Authorities are calling on the public to take extra precautions.

That’s not just a snapshot of COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic that has triggered a global wave of anxiety. It’s also a worrisome description of a much more common illness, influenza, which killed more than 34,000 Americans last flu season and 61,000 the year before.

Even as officials are scrambling to limit the spread of COVID-19, it has prompted a broader focus on efforts to combat infectious diseases.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin) is at the forefront in this work, a leading advocate for expanding vaccine access and uptake globally, advancing vaccine research and development and amplifying vaccine knowledge and innovation.

Sabin – a nonprofit whose donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and others – is backing initiatives to create and accelerate the development of a universal vaccine that has the aspirational goal of providing long-lasting immunity against many strains of influenza.

Seeking to complement and expand existing research, Sabin is looking to identify novel approaches and communicate the urgent need for next-generation flu vaccines.

Last year, Sabin took on another important global vaccine project – the development of vaccines to protect against two strains of Ebola virus and Marburg, another hemorrhagic fever virus. Sabin also is building the case for the introduction of a new typhoid vaccine in countries that have a high burden of illness. This severe bacterial infection spreads through contaminated food and water and kills 128,000 to 161,000 people each year.

Even as the fallout of the coronavirus is still being calculated, other outbreaks of infectious diseases are inevitable. That’s why Sabin and others are committed to enhancing science and research, akin to what some describe as a move from firefighting to fireproofing.

Dr. Bruce Gellin, Sabin’s president of global immunization, said that given their long record of safety and effectiveness, vaccines have never been more important than they are now in today’s global, connected world.

Sabin’s president of global immunization, Dr. Bruce Gellin


Gellin has been on the front lines in the fight against pandemics. Before joining Sabin in 2017, he served as the deputy assistant secretary for health and director of the National Vaccine Program Office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In that role, he was a technical and policy adviser to the HHS secretary and to the World Health Organization (WHO), with a focus on influenza vaccines and global issues of vaccine hesitancy.

In 2005, he led the development of HHS’s first pandemic influenza preparedness and response plan. Later, during the 2009 influenza pandemic, he led the U.S. team that donated H1N1 vaccines to WHO for distribution to other countries, expanded the nation’s vaccine safety monitoring system, and coordinated cross-government interagency efforts on vaccine development, supply and distribution.

Here’s his take on the latest developments:

What is Sabin’s influenza initiative?

It’s about trying to rethink how we can improve on and develop not just better influenza vaccines, but the holy grail – a universal influenza vaccine that will take the threat of influenza, both seasonal and pandemic off the table. So, while improving the annual vaccine is important, we also need to have an aspirational goal. Incremental improvements are important, but a transformational change would be historic.

What is the difference between seasonal influenza and pandemic influenza?

Influenza is a virus that not only can cause a life-threating infection, but also is capable of rapid mutation. Because of this characteristic, people infected with an influenza virus one year might not be immune to influenza viruses in the following years. This is why we need to tailor-make influenza vaccines each year to be sure that the vaccine is effective. But more importantly, “seasonal” influenza understates the true threat of influenza. While it is “seasonal,” it is really a recurring epidemic.

Because it is so familiar, we’ve become complacent and don’t really appreciate the impact that this respiratory virus has on morbidity and mortality. Moreover, it gets confused with all the other ailments in the cold and flu season such as coughs, fevers, congestion, and sore throats. What we fail to communicate is how serious seasonal influenza is.

An influenza pandemic is when influenza experiences a mutation and the resultant virus is brand new and no one has immunity to it. It can also be transmitted from person to person. In that setting, a pandemic can be ignited. The current worldwide spread of a novel coronavirus has many of those same features.

What lessons have you learned from previous epidemics?

Preparedness matters and having a plan matters. This brings me back to when I was in government. When SARS first emerged in 2002, there was initial concern that it was a recurrence of bird flu (H5N1) that had appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. That was a wake-up call that contagious respiratory viruses could be devastating. While bird flu was primarily a problem for birds, because there were human infections that were transmitted from person-to-person and because this infection was highly lethal, it was a big fear. That was the setup for a pending pandemic and inspired planning by governments and institutions around the world.

Why is there more panic over the coronavirus than a more common illness like the flu?

It’s new and it’s unknown. We don’t know exactly how it’s transmitted. We don’t know exactly how severe it is. We don’t understand how in some people it’s a mild illness and in others, it’s a very serious illness. We’re just starting to learn more about how contagious it is. Right now, it seems that for every person infected, two or three others might be infected, so you can do the math of how that would then expand. That’s what we’re seeing in the news every day around the world. As we learn more, we should also know how we might keep it from spreading (or keep it from spreading so efficiently), whether among the many approaches that are being taken to develop a vaccine will work and how important scientific understanding is to health and well being.