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Merck, Wellcome in vaccine project for poor

London, September 19, 2009

US drugs group Merck has teamed up with Britain's Wellcome Trust medical charity in a not-for-profit joint venture to develop affordable vaccines for poor countries.

It is the first time that a drugmaker and a charity have joined forces in this way to create vaccines for the developing world.

The partners said on Thursday they would invest equally in the research and development project, which will be primed with a combined cash contribution of 90 million pounds ($148 million) over seven years.

According to a statement from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi), nearly 2.3 million children still die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases.

The Merck-Wellcome venture is the latest effort to demonstrate "good citizenship" by the global pharmaceutical industry, which has been criticised for not doing enough to ensure people in Africa and other poorer regions have adequate access to medicine.

In a separate move in February, GlaxoSmithKline pledged to place many of its patents on drugs for tropical diseases into a free "pool".

But Merck chief executive Richard Clark said having such an open book on patents didn't tackle the problem of actually making products for the developing world, as the new venture would.

Hilleman Laboratories -- named after scientist Maurice Hilleman who worked at Merck and developed more than 30 vaccines -- will be based in India with a staff of 60.

It will focus on fields relevant to low-income countries, such as the production of heat-stable vaccines that do not require refrigeration and the development of a vaccine against Group A streptococci.

Merck and Wellcome said they hoped other pharmaceutical groups would collaborate in future, including Indian generic companies, which would play a key role in manufacture.

In the long-term, the goal is to make Hilleman Laboratories self-sufficient, since it should be able to sell some of its innovations in rich countries.

Vaccines are the best hope for tackling many diseases in poor countries, but in many cases they are either too expensive or are unsuited to tropical conditions.

Referring to Unicef data showing the number of children under 5 who die each year has fallen below 9.0 million for the first time, Gavi said on Thursday that 25 per cent of remaining deaths could be prevented with vaccination.

"The demand by low-income countries for new, life-saving vaccines has never been higher. We must answer their call," said Gavi chief executive Julian Lob Levyt. – Reuters




Tags: London | vaccine | Merck | Wellcome | Hilleman |

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