Drug firms offer cheap vaccines to poor countries

Several major pharmaceutical companies have announced big cuts to the amounts they charge for their vaccines in the developing world. Many lives will be saved.

'I'm very excited,' says Dr Freddie Coker, a paediatrician in Sierra Leone. 'As a doctor, I usually spend sleepless nights trying to see how much I can contribute to reducing the infant mortality rate among under-fives in my country.'

Dr Coker is responding to the promise made by a number of drug companies to reduce the prices of vaccines in developing countries – making medical help available to those who could never afford it on their own.

This good news announcement has been made ahead of a London conference at which political leaders will consider how to raise funds for immunisation around the world.

The promise will have surprised many, as pharmaceutical companies have not always been good news for the poor. In 2006 they were shown to be exploiting the homeless and illiterate in India to conduct clinical trials that hadn't even been tried on animals.

But working with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), big players in the drug industry such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-Aventis have had a change of heart.

GSK, for instance, has agreed to sell a rotavirus vaccine that prevents diarrhoeal disease in the poorest countries for £1.50 a dose – a twentieth of its £30 price in developed countries.

Why does this matter? Rotavirus-related diarrhoea kills more than 500,000 children a year on the African continent.

'About 40% of cases we see are due to diarrhoea diseases,' says Dr Coker. 'The mortality rate can be as high as 50%. The earlier a child is commenced on treatment, the better the outcome.'

Andrew Witty, Chief Executive of GSK, says drug companies need to make a profit in order to invest in developing the next generation of vaccines, so someone has to pay – but it shouldn't be those least able to.

'It's obvious that if you're in Kenya or a slum in Malawi or somewhere like that there is no capacity for those people to contribute to it – so they have to be helped out by the contribution from the middle and the richer countries.'

The business of medicine

Many people think private companies should not be in charge of producing and developing life-saving medicines like vaccines. They say that drug companies are only interested in profit and don't care about global health.

But Andrew Witty claims they do. He says drug companies are 'in step with society' and are trying to find ways of doing business that not only make a profit but also address the world's urgent health needs. Critics will dismiss this as a publicity stunt but whatever the motives, lower prices will help Dr Coker save a lot more lives.

You Decide

  1. 'Why should someone who lives in England subsidise a child in Malawi? Charity should start at home.' Do you agree?
  2. Should medicine be in the hands of private business?

Activities

  1. Not all the drug companies have signed up to these promises. Write a letter to those who haven't, saying what you feel they should do – and why.
  2. Research the history of vaccinations (See 'Become an Expert') and write a piece highlighting the key moments in this medical adventure which has saved so many lives.

Some People Say...

“Drugs for poor countries should be free.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what exactly is GAVI?
Established by the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, it's a partnership between governments and business that seeks to finance vaccination programmes in the developing countries. Their ambition is to save four million lives in the next five years – but they'll need the help of governments.
Are there any new vaccines in the pipeline?
GSK say they're very close to developing the world's first malaria vaccine, which is unusual because there is no market for it in the West.
Why does that matter?
It means there's no opportunity for patients in richer countries to subsidise those in poorer countries. As a result, GSK said that if the vaccine comes to market it will be sold at a price that provides a small return of 5%, which would then be used to fund the next generation of malaria treatments.

Word Watch

Vaccine
A biological preparation that improves immunity to a particular disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, but in its weakest form.
Immunisation
the effect of vaccines, whereby the individual's immune system is strengthened against illness.
Pharmaceutical industry
The pharmaceutical industry develops, produces and markets drugs licensed for use as medicine.

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