March 12, 2012

The beginning of the end

Senior Policy Communications Associate

Phil Carroll, senior policy communications associate at PATH, writes about Marc LaForce, recently retired director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project. This post is part of an ongoing effort on Breakthroughs to highlight leaders and heroes in global health research and development (R&D).

Marc LaForce’s career at PATH has been nothing but illustrious. He came to our organization in 2001 to lead a project that had more than a few skeptics. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Meningitis Vaccine Project , a partnership between PATH and the World Health Organization (WHO), was tasked with leading R&D for a new vaccine against group A meningococcal meningitis—a particularly deadly strain of meningitis that forms a belt across sub-Saharan Africa. The most significant ask was to deliver the vaccine at a price the countries could afford: less than 50 cents a dose. It was a daunting challenge, but one that Marc and his team did not shy away from.

By working with a host of multi-sector partners, including multilateral institutions like the WHO and a well-established manufacturer in India, the Meningitis Vaccine Project succeeded in creating MenAfriVac™, the first vaccine designed specifically for Africa. In addition, the US Government played a critical role in the creation of this new vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and US Agency for International Development all made scientific and research contributions to the development and delivery of MenAfriVac™. It should also be noted that the success of this project would not have happened without the cooperation and involvement of African governments, which identified the need for a vaccine, stressed the importance of a low price per dose, and finally helped orchestrate the immunization campaigns in country.

Marc LaForce, retired director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project. Photo credit: PATH

To date, MenAfriVac™ has reached almost 55 million people since its launch in Burkina Faso at the end of 2010. Even more impressive is that in all of those vaccinees, not a single case of meningitis A has been reported. The creation and roll-out of MenAfriVac™ represents one of the most exciting success stories in global health R&D, and demonstrates how a strong commitment to R&D from a range of partners can result in an amazing new tool that can make an impact of millions of lives.

However, as Marc pointed out at the Global Health Technologies Coalition’s annual briefing on Capitol Hill last week, the battle against this disease is far from over. We need greater investment in R&D for an additional vaccine that would protect against other types of meningitis. Through Marc’s leadership and vision, we know that an effective, affordable, and accessible vaccine is not just possible, but achievable.

February 28 was Marc’s last day at PATH before his official retirement, and he left us with quite the legacy. Leaders at PATH are fond of referring to the success of Meningitis Vaccine Project as the “beginning of the end” of meningitis A in Africa. In many ways, this phrase can be applied to Marc’s new chapter in life. Instead of hitting the links or working on his tan in Florida as other retirees might, Marc will return to his former life in academia, molding the minds of the next generation of public health professionals and scientific leaders. Who knows, there might just be a future Marc LaForce among them.