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Seth Berkley's Move From IAVI to GAVI

Seth Berkley is trading an "I" for a "G."

In August, Berkley, who founded and heads the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), will take over the GAVI Alliance, another public-private partnership focused on vaccines but with the broader agenda of immunizing children in poor countries against many diseases. Berkley, an epidemiologist who began working on forming IAVI in 1994 and formally launched it 2 years later, previously had jobs with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carter Center, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although IAVI and GAVI are both vaccine-centric, they differ in key ways. There is no AIDS vaccine, and the New York City-based IAVI has tried to push the research and development forward by funding innovative collaborations and even building its own laboratory. The Geneva-based GAVI, in contrast, helps countries purchase and deliver existing vaccines. IAVI's budget is $93.9 million for 2011. GAVI has committed more than $4 billion to poor countries since it started in 2000, vaccinating nearly 300 million children and saving an estimated 5 million lives.

ScienceInsider spoke with Berkley shortly after the GAVI Alliance's board announced the news today.

Q: Why are you leaving IAVI?

S.B.: For two reasons. GAVI has an incredibly important mission and the leadership opportunity came up now. From my perspective, GAVI has the ability to be the broad umbrella dealing with all these critical vaccine issues. The second thing is IAVI is a really mature organization now. I've seen it grow from a sapling to a really well-rooted tree, and I feel the organization is strong enough for me to go. I think it's the right time.

Q: What are the challenges at GAVI?

S.B.: There are all these new vaccines coming out and the challenge is to get them to people in the poorest countries. This requires good immunization delivery systems, affordable vaccines, and sustainability of financing—which means getting vaccines into the budgets of those countries and donor funds to help with their distribution. And the challenge for GAVI is that this needs to be accelerated.

Q: How are you going to change GAVI?

S.B.: That will remain to be seen. My job will be to look at the excellent work being done and to build on it. And the thing that's different with GAVI is it works closely with partners. Right now, the world is at the highest immunization rates that it's ever been at, and there's no reason we can't get these new vaccines to more people. That needs to be the goal. We also need to finish the polio eradication agenda and see that development of vaccines for the next generation moves on.

Q: How about funding? Times are tough for everyone.

S.B.: IAVI is certainly healthy as an organization, but we think the science—which is moving so well, particularly around the areas of neutralizing antibodies and cellular immunity—could be influenced by financing. The order of magnitude of what's being spent on AIDS vaccines is relatively small compared to what's being spent on AIDS overall.

For GAVI, some of the delivery issues are much more expensive, but immunization is the most cost effective way to buy quality adjusted years of life.

Q: Are you going to be spending more time raising money at GAVI than at IAVI?

S.B.: I've spent much of my current job raising money. One of the critical things is getting governments to prioritize immunizations as the most cost effective programs. You should fund your immunization program before anything else.

Q: Any idea who'll replace you.

S.B.: The IAVI board will discuss this at its next meeting in a few weeks. I'll stay through June.

Q: Why do you think this is the right time to leave IAVI?

S.B.: Everybody tells you in management advice that by the time you know you've stayed in a job too long, you've been there way too long. I've been at IAVI for 17 years. This organization is my baby. I love this challenge and the organization. But it's the nature of a leader to want to take on a new challenge. GAVI is the next step. And it's where IAVI's going to turn to once we develop an AIDS vaccine.