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Seth Berkley and the International Aids Vaccine Initiative

Seth Berkley is an American medical epidemiologist, and the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. He is the founder and former president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), which today also works on vaccines for other infectious diseases. Seth organized a convening to accelerate the research into an AIDs vaccine at Bellagio in 1993, the impact of which is felt today.

  • In addition to its critical global public health importance, the search for an AIDS vaccine has been highly political. By bringing a diverse group of leaders to Bellagio, we were able to re-energize the AIDS vaccine effort and create IAVI.
    Seth Berkley
    CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

Although we still do not have a vaccine, important scientific breakthroughs have been facilitated and are being actively pursued in this critical global effort.

In early 1993, despite the global spread of HIV, the effort to develop an AIDS vaccine was in trouble. A vaccine could be the best way to end this global pandemic, yet neither the public nor the private sector was investing in its development. As The Rockefeller Foundation has long been committed to medical innovation, supporting AIDS research was a logical step in its century-long efforts. In 1987, the foundation gave a $50,000 grant to conduct a research study on the control of AIDS in Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The AIDS crisis had seemed too complex for a foundation to tackle. Yet, that was how the Bellagio Center could make a difference.

In March 1994, a conference was held at the Bellagio Center with the goal of investigating the progress in the development of preventive HIV vaccines suitable for global use. The conference was titled: Accelerating the Development of Preventive HIV Vaccines for the World. Seth Berkley was working as a CDC scientist at the time and, as The Rockefeller Foundation’s Associate Director for Health Sciences, he invited 24 participants from 12 countries to partake in the conference. As they spent more time conversing in the surroundings, they became inspired to move beyond their normal limits.

Big ideas swiftly followed and, by the end of the conference, all participants concluded that a new, bold initiative was necessary. Its primary mandate would be the goal of accelerating the development of preventive AIDS vaccines for global use. It would also focus on the deep needs of the developing world and would use the world’s best science to do so. Lastly, it would combine the rigor of industry with the public-good mandate of the public sector.

The initiative was deemed the “single most diverse, intense AIDS vaccine think tank ever held” by Science magazine writer Jon Cohen. Attendees were from diverse fields like vaccine development, AIDS research and care, international health and finance, public-private collaborations, and pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical industries. Yet, these participants were received as individuals – not as representatives of their organizations or employers. Aside from the new initiative, another one of the conference’s outcomes was to collaborate with organizations (such as WHO and UNICEF) to ensure the immediate availability of a vaccine once successfully developed.

The impact of the 1994 conference reverberated on an international scale. In 1996, the  International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) was officially launched as a new product development public-private partnership (PDP), supported by a $2.5 million investment from The Rockefeller Foundation. From 1998 onwards, $265 million from a variety of sources was added to the initiative.

While IAVI has yet to develop a vaccine, the organization’s creation still represents a landmark moment in the fight against AIDS. IAVI is still working on innovations in AIDS vaccines and the most promising candidate right now is coming out of the longstanding research. But IAVI is now also working on other infectious diseases and emerging infection vaccines.

Moreover, IAVI was the first PDP dedicated to HIV vaccine development. It inspired new public-private cooperation in medicine, placed HIV vaccine work foremost on the global health agenda, and sparked scientific breakthroughs that have brought us closer to developing an HIV vaccine. Additionally, its success provided a model for the creation of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) just a few years later.

The model set out by Seth Berkley and the IAVI has spread: there are more than half a dozen PDPs – their influence is felt around the world. There are now billions of dollars being invested in research for interventions in diseases of poverty, and the pipeline of drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics for these diseases has grown exponentially.

  • This decades-long endeavor shows that, for small ideas, you can go to any retreat. But to think expansively of fearless ideas, implement innovative design, and courageously put them into practice, there is no place like Bellagio.
    Seth Berkley
    CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

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To find out more about IAVI’s work fighting infectious disease around the world, visit

Editorial note | Taken from The Rockefeller Foundation’s archive, this article highlights the ways in which this particular institution offers a unique model for serving the world. The article has been edited for brevity.