Brucellosis is a contagious and costly bacterial disease that causes abortions, decreased milk production, weight loss, infertility, and lameness in cattle, sheep, goats, and other production animals. Brucellosis is also the most common zoonotic disease worldwide with around 500,000 new human cases annually.1 Brucella melitensis, the strain that causes Brucellosis in sheep and goats, is the most virulent strain of the disease and causes the majority of human Brucellosis cases. Only around 20 developed countries have eradicated the disease, which remains endemic in many regions of the world including Latin America, Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Successfully controlling Brucellosis requires an integrated
approach involving slaughter of infected animals and vaccination among other measures.2 However, existing vaccines are unsafe for pregnant animals and can cause infection in humans.3 Culling of infected animals is also difficult in the developing world, making the development of a safer vaccine a potential game changer for the fight against this costly disease.
Despite the critical need for an improved vaccine against B. melitensis, there is little economic incentive to develop one without outside intervention. Large commercial entities are unlikely to invest in developing vaccine candidates because of limited market potential. Likewise, smaller companies will avoid the risk associated with large, upfront costs for research and development. A third potential group, research and academic institutions, often take on development of new vaccines, but face barriers in undertaking the most expensive part of the vaccine development process: safety and efficacy testing in large animals.4
The AgResults Brucellosis Vaccine Pilot works to overcome the above-described market barriers by providing three phases of results-based incentive prizes to commercial and/or academic actors (“solvers”) who develop solutions to the vaccine development challenge. During Phase 1, which ran from November 2017 to November 2018, we accepted applications to the contest, with a payout of $100,000 for those judged among the best 10 submissions. Phase 2 prizes will be awarded on evidence of successful proof of concept vaccine safety and efficacy trials. Phase 3 prizes will be awarded after successful registration of a vaccine that meets minimum requirements set forth by the contest.
As the pharma industry has largely ignored B. melitensis, we were conservative in our estimates of how many applications we would receive in Phase 1. We were too conservative as in the end we received 39 applications from almost every continent. The large number received is reflective of the contest design, the strong industry position and ability to build trust of the Pilot Manager, GALVmed, and a focused and coordinated marketing campaign to attract applicants from around the world. It may also reflect misalignment of the contest design with what was actually needed to spur development of an improved vaccine, a topic that will be explored further by the AgResults External Evaluator.
From the start, we envisaged marketing as a crucial component to encourage solver participation by generating excitement and publicity for the challenge. However, unique among AgResults pilots is the Brucellosis Pilot’s scope, which is research-focused and global to provide the possibility for the best possible vaccine candidate to emerge. Therefore, we needed to engage the global animal health community, primarily through a Pilot Manager that not only had the technical capacity to understand vaccine R&D and the developing world context, but also has a global reach to encourage participation from solvers.
First, the Pilot required considerable technical expertise in vaccine R&D, commercialization and registration of veterinary vaccines, and experience in developing countries, so the Brucellosis Pilot Manager’s role would extend beyond the normal AgResults pilot management activities (work planning, solver sign-up, stakeholder engagement, and marketing). The Brucellosis Pilot Manager would also provide technical input into a number of critical Pilot tasks, such as developing technical contest rules, defining technical requirements of animal safety and efficacy studies, recruiting specialized experts to judge each round of solver submissions, and promoting the contest at highly technical industry and research events. Facilitating the development of an improved Brucellosis vaccine that can be more effective in emerging markets also requires experience and knowledge of developing country contexts. The Pilot Manager would need a deep working knowledge of the realities of animal health in developing countries to achieve the ends of the AgResults program.
Second, the Brucellosis Pilot Manager would be required to tap into global animal health industry networks to encourage a broad set of pharmaceutical companies and research institutions to act as Solvers. Importantly, we would need to develop high trust in this novel pay-for-results process, as most pharmaceutical industry actors might hesitate to engage with external actors like AgResults due to intellectual property concerns.
Given the unique nature of the Brucellosis Vaccine R&D Pilot and the related Pilot Manager requirements, AgResults identified GALVmed as the Pilot Manager.
GALVmed, a not-for-profit organization based in the United Kingdom, works with the private sector to develop new animal health products, primarily vaccines, to the point where they can be distributed on a commercial basis, to smallholder livestock farmers in low-income countries. Much of its work consists of convening experts along with the networking and facilitation of partners, including in the private sector. GALVmed’s network gives it deep and meaningful reach into the traditional pharmaceutical industry as well as the development sector. GALVmed’s status as a not-for-profit organization also provides private sector partners with a reduced concern in partnering, as pipeline confidentiality and intellectual property are of critical concern in the pharmaceutical industry.
During the Brucellosis Pilot design phase, the AgResults Secretariat had first-hand experience with the difficulty of accessing this particular industry, as industry actors were hesitant to engage or share information due to our status as outsiders running an unheard-of contest. In response, we engaged a GALVmed expert and industry insider to help establish contact and engender trust among pharmaceutical companies. That consultant’s and industry knowledge helped companies more openly engage the Secretariat design team and facilitate information exchange, highlighting the need for a fully linked in Pilot Manager like GALVmed.
GALVmed formally joined AgResults as pilot manager in April 2016, just before the official launch of the Pilot in Brussels in June 2016 at the International Federation for Animal Health conference. This short window required GALVmed to work quickly to facilitate the launch, which provided important initial publicity, and then prepare the contest for a Phase 1 start date of September 1, 2016. This window proved far too short. GALVmed had little time to convene the technical experts needed to finalize the competition rules, let alone to allow for legal review as was necessary for a pilot with a prize structure as large and complex as this one. There was also not enough time to engage a suitable marketing firm that would be present at the launch and after to amplify the Pilot’s message.
As a compromise, the Pilot’s application portal opened on September 1, 2016, but only allowed prospective solvers to register interest, not apply. It would take another two months for AgResults to finalize and publicize the official contest rules, relaunch the pilot at the Brucellosis 2016 International Conference in New Delhi in November, and officially start accepting applications on November 18, 2016.
Simultaneous to the launch of the contest, GALVmed recruited the five-person panel who would serve as the Pilot’s independent judges and determine the awardees in all three phases of the contest. Judges were recruited based on experience in animal health, technical vaccine research and development, Brucellosis and its impacts, regulatory affairs, marketing authorization for veterinary vaccines, and vaccine marketing and commercialization.5 The panel was selected for its balance of industry, academic and regulatory backgrounds. The balance has proved crucial in AgResults’ ability to fully consider all aspects of the 39 applications received during Phase 1 in order to award prizes.
GALVmed also recruited five experts to serve on the Technical Committee. This body’s role was to establish the technical requirements for the contest and help finalize the contest rules. The Committee has also been called upon to provide expert feedback if there are questions on the rules.
In the original business plan, we identified three groups of potential solvers: large commercial firms, small commercial firms, and academic/ research institutions. We knew large firms would probably not go for a contest focused on Brucellosis due to the limited profitability of a new vaccine. However, the last two groups were prime targets, and they became the focus of outreach. To that end, GALVmed developed a “target solver” priority contact list built from AgResults and GALVmed contacts. Although GALVmed had the ability to target many of these known industry players through direct communications and industry events, we also set aside specific funding for GALVmed to engage in specialized marketing activities to amplify GALVmed’s reach through general and targeted communications.
For the global campaign, GALVmed conducted an open procurement and selected Garnet Keeler (GK), a UK-based firm with extensive animal health marketing and global media experience, to lead the strategy. GALVmed also hired a China-based consultant who focused on outreach to prospective solvers there, resulting in several applications received from Chinese organizations.
Under the oversight of GALVmed and the Secretariat, GK conducted a multi-faceted media campaign that focused on targeted communications. Press releases covering competition news, such as at the Phase 1 launch in India and upon award of Milestone 1 prizewinners provided broad coverage with more focused material being disseminated through important animal health publications, such coverage in Animal Pharm and an article in the International Animal Health Journal (IAHJ). Other publications in which the competition was promoted were, Vet Practice Magazine, The Sheep Site, Drug Discovery Today and Philanthropy News Digest.
Building on GALVmed’s industry presence, support was secured from events including IFAH Europe, the Animal Health Investment Forum (AHIF), the World Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians symposium and the Vet Health Global conference: this ranged from negotiating preferential entrance rates, to providing banners and flyers for display and distribution to delegates. At several events, GALVmed speakers including Peter Jeffries, Jeremy Salt, Gwynneth Clay and Amy Tranzillo presented in part on the Brucellosis Pilot competition. Engagement with a major organization, Health for Animals, resulted in materials being displayed at their Brussels event and sent information to their associate members around the world.
Emails and newsletters distributed to target audiences including existing vaccine developers, registered solvers, and event attendees via a database of GALVmed and event contacts, including an important conference in Latin America helped broaden yet target appropriate dissemination of competition information. The targeted communications generated high levels of engagement: emails averaged a 46% open rate and 15% click rate, while newsletters averaged a 39% open rate and 9% click rate. For comparison, recent average results for UK email marketing campaigns are a 24.79% open rate and a 4.19% click rate.6
The targeted campaign ran alongside a general communications platform, which used Twitter and LinkedIn to amplify the reach of press releases and conference participation along with a News & Media section on the Brucellosis Prize Competition website that includes blogs, newsletters, graphics, and press releases.7 Since launch, the News & Media section has attracted more than 2,400 page views (around 1,900 of these unique).
The response to Phase 1 of the contest has been significantly greater than what AgResults expected at the onset. Instead of 10-15 applications, we received 39. Out of those 39 applications, the independent judging panel recommended 20 to move on to Phase 2, with the top 10 receiving a milestone award of $100,000 each. Before the launch of Phase 1, we had developed a target solver database built from AgResults and GALVmed contacts. From that list, we received 13 applications, of which six received a milestone award and six more moved on to Phase 2 with no award. This high pass rate highlights the success of the direct outreach strategy.
The large number of applications did present a situation that was somewhat at odds with the spirit of the contest rules, which allowed for prizes to the best 10 applications, but which the judging panel reviewed on a quarterly basis. The panel therefore had to take an extremely conservative approach to reviewing applications, and delayed a final prize decision on a number of applications until later quarters when the overall quality of certain applications vis-à-vis the others became clearer. In retrospect, it may have been easier to render judgement on all applications only at the end of the first phase of the competition. However, the prizes that AgResults awarded at the ends of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, along with the associated publicity, may have prompted other solvers to apply.
We had envisaged additional outreach after Phase 1 to continue to encourage contest applications, which solvers can submit at any point before the final prize award. However, due to the high number of applications, we modified our focus to promote the competition and its progress towards a potential improved vaccine rather than to encourage new solvers to join. Another important component to address is how to encourage partnerships between solvers and other organizations who may have complementary skills and thereby increase the chances of a successful development, without choosing who works with whom. The prize website includes an open access partnering portal, but additional opportunities may be sought by AgResults to facilitate additional partnering opportunities.
Though the first year of this unique pilot, we have gathered compelling evidence that this type of contest can work to address a market failure in the development of an otherwise neglected vaccine. We present our initial Phase 1 learning below, which AgResults’ External Evaluator will explore in the coming months through a rigorous independent evaluation process.
1. Pappas, G., Papadimitriou, P., Akritidis, N., Christou, L., Tsianos, E.V. “The new global map of human Brucellosis”, Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2006, 6 (2): 91–99.↩
2. "Facts about Brucellosis.” United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.↩
3. Yang, X., Skyberg, J.A., Cao, L., Clapp, B., Thornburg, T., Pascual, D.W. “Progress in Brucella vaccine development”. Front Biol (Beijing). 2013, 8 (1): 60-77.↩
4. AgResults Brucellosis Vaccine Development Business Plan.↩
5. The same requirements were later included in the final Brucellosis Contest Rules.↩
6. Estimates provided by Smart Insights, www.smartinsights.com↩
AgResults is a $122 million collaborative initiative between the governments of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to incentivize the private sector to overcome market barriers and develop solutions to food security and agricultural challenges that disproportionately affect people living in poverty. The initiative designs and implements agricultural development prize competitions, also referred to as pay-for-results or pull mechanisms, which are innovative development finance programs that incentivize the private sector to work towards a defined goal to receive a monetary award.
One of the primary objectives of AgResults is to better understand how well pull mechanisms work to overcome market failures in agricultural development. The lessons learned series explores AgResults’ experience designing and implementing agricultural-focused pull mechanisms, with the goal of providing key lessons and recommendations that development practitioners should take into account when designing similar programs.