A preview of what’s to come: The 2021 Joep Lange Chair and Fellows Symposium

I remember Joep as a champion dedicated to access to quality care and related issues. He was deeply concerned with the vulnerable. What is happening today would deeply hurt him. No doubt about it. Access to vaccines is a human rights issue. Joep would have been fighting to increase access to vaccines in developing countries. -Dr. John Nkengasong

The Joep Lange Chair and Fellows Symposium is just around the corner, and with the timely theme of “The Future of Vaccination”, it is difficult to detach the symposium from the current events. While this year’s theme is focused on vaccination, not covid specifically, our speakers are eager to discuss what the current pandemic has taught us about vaccine development, distribution, and access, and what we can learn for future diseases, epidemics, and pandemics. In the spirit of Dr. Joep Lange who was passionate about improving access to quality of care and advancing science for the benefit of society as a whole, the speakers of this symposium will share lessons learned, misconceptions around vaccination, and ways to improve vaccination moving forward. The symposium features a diverse set of speakers from different disciplines and different parts of the world – Virologist Prof. Rogier Sanders will present on experimental vaccinology, Prof. Anna Vassall will give a talk assessing the impact of vaccines from a health economics standpoint, Dr. Ellen ‘t Hoen will discuss access and patents of vaccines, and director of Africa CDC, Dr. John Nkengasong, will discuss vaccine development and access in Africa. Moderating the expert panel is an expert himself, Dr. Roel Coutinho, who was a professor in Epidemiology and Prevention of infectious diseases and the director of the newly established Netherlands Center for Infectious Disease Control which is part of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment from 2005-2013. It is apparent from speaking with these experts that they have a lot of exciting and important information to share during the Joep Lange Chair and Fellows Symposium.

In advance of the Symposium, we sat down with each of the experts to give you a preview of what to expect on 28 October. Prof. Rogier Sanders will kick off the Symposium highlighting the lessons learned from his many years of HIV vaccine research that led to the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Prof. Sanders designs experimental vaccines, primarily for HIV, but his lab is also involved in working on the covid vaccine. But how does the vaccine really work? What research helped us swiftly develop this vaccine? These are some of the questions Prof. Sanders will discuss in his talk. He also explained, “I think it is important to know that this pandemic actually helped move RNA vaccines forward, which is going to help us tremendously in the future.”

Speaking to the legislative gaps, barriers to access, and vaccine patents and manufacturing know-how will be Dr. Ellen ‘t Hoen. She will speak about what should have happened in terms of vaccine manufacturing and rollout, and what is necessary for future pandemics. She will explain why access to vaccines not only requires access to patents but also other forms of intellectual property (IP) such as data and know-how. The covid-19 vaccine IP was developed with significant amounts of public financing which should have made the sharing of the manufacturing knowledge easier. She will explain why this sharing did not happen. Ellen ‘t Hoen’s expertise is in intellectual property and she will explain how matters of IP should be regulated better, for example, in a global pandemic treaty currently under discussion at the WHO.

Health Economist Prof. Anna Vassall’s previous research has helped inform her current research on covid-19 vaccines, specifically in low- and middle-income countries. She, along with her team of researchers, have been able to draw on a base of research of other infectious diseases in the rapid way that is needed in the midst of a pandemic. During the Symposium, Prof. Vassall will explain that essential health services face substantial financing and health system constraints, but vaccine roll-out is possible. The same challenge was faced, as she reminds us, during the early stages of the HIV pandemic.

Prof. Vassall draws a link between her current research and the namesake of the Symposium. “We all had a choice whether or not to focus on covid-19 research. For me, it was important to use the skills and energy we have in global health research, and involve early career researchers, as this period will define the next generation of public health research”. Just as Joep Lange chose to research HIV and be an advocate during the early years of the HIV pandemic in Africa, Prof. Vassall hopes that the community built today around covid-19 will make a similar contribution in the decades to come.

As the voice of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. John Nkengasong will close the Symposium discussing vaccine access and distribution in Africa. Dr. Nkengasong will stress that “it is of the common interest as humanity that the quickest way to get out of this pandemic is to vaccinate quickly. That seems not to have resonated across the board. We know this virus is mutating quickly. Even countries that are vaccinated are still being challenged by new variants”. He will touch on misconceptions, mischaracterizations, and challenges in the African context. Finally, we will hear lessons learned that have emerged from the pandemic, a major one being the manufacturing of vaccines.

Our Symposium would not be complete without the impeccable skills of a highly qualified expert as moderator. Prof. Roel Coutinho will moderate both the question-and-answer portion for each speaker and the final panel discussion between all four speakers. Prof. Coutinho’s expertise in vaccination programs, public health, and epidemiology spans decades and continents. When speaking with Prof. Coutinho, he explained how vaccine programs during the current pandemic are vastly different from immunization programs in the past. For example, programs often targeted a smaller group of people, such as children under five or the elderly, rather than the majority of the population within a small timeframe. The challenge is clear, but we are still searching for answers. In order to help us find some of those answers, Prof. Roel Coutinho will address our wonderful lineup of speakers, asking questions from our attendees.

Interested in listening to these experts speak live? You can register here to attend the Joep Lange Chair and Fellows Symposium on 28 October from 13:00-16:00 CEST. This is a free Symposium open to the public, with the goal of sharing knowledge and generating discussion. We look forward to hearing your questions and seeing you there.