$1 Billion Vaccine Push Aims to Protect Children in Poor Countries

BY Talea Miller  September 27, 2011 at 2:43 PM EDT

A child receives a rotavirus vaccine. Photo by GAVI.

An international alliance of private donors and governments has approved $1 billion for more than 30 developing countries to buy vaccines to protect against deadly childhood diseases.

The money distributed by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, GAVI, will launch the first widespread immunization campaign for rotavirus, the leading cause of severe diarrhea and a major cause of death among young children. An additional 18 countries have been approved for funding for the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumonia.

“Where you were born will no longer define the protection you receive,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI, calling the scale up of these vaccines in the developing world unprecedented. “We are giving children around the world the best tools we have to fight these diseases.”

The alliance negotiates with pharmaceutical companies to secure discounted vaccine prices for developing countries — sometimes reducing the cost by more than 90 percent — and helps countries purchase the vaccines. It’s GAVI’s role as a collective bargainer that has made these deals possible, said GAVI spokesperson Dan Thomas.

“We’re pooling the demand from 72 big countries with lots and lots of children,” he said. “Instead of them all trying to buy vaccine on the open market themselves we are doing it on a global basis so we can hold up that demand to companies.”

Recipient governments are also expected to show financial commitment and pay a portion of the vaccine costs, up to 20 percent of the price depending on the country’s economic status.

The process speeds up the time it takes for a vaccine to reach poorer parts of the world by between 10 to 15 years. GAVI’s bargaining power comes from its members, which include governments, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and private donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation*, and its money — the organization raised more than $4.3 billion at its first pledge conference held earlier this year, even more than its projected goal.

But GAVI does have its critics. In May, the group appointed a drug company to its board, drawing skepticism from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders that saw great potential for conflict of interest. Other NGOs criticize GAVI for approving funding only to countries that have a certain level of health infrastructure in place, thereby excluding some of the poorest, neediest nations. GAVI acknowledged Tuesday that not all countries meet the standards it requires for funding, but said the threshold is a way to ensure resources are used most effectively.

GAVI’s next goal is to immunize more than 50 million children against rotavirus by 2015. The disease causes severe diarrhea and kills more than half a million children around the world each year. Nearly half of these deaths occur in African countries, so GAVI is focusing on the region first, already rolling out the vaccine in Sudan and adding 12 new African countries with Tuesday’s announcement.

The group is still negotiating the final price for the rotavirus vaccine, but GlaxoSmithKline has made a preliminary offer of $5 per child, a 95 percent reduction from the lowest Western market price.

Pneumococcal disease also kills more than half a million children each year worldwide. GAVI has already helped roll out this vaccine in 14 countries, in large part due to a funding mechanism called an advanced market commitment. GAVI promised a certain level of demand to the vaccine makers in return for a discounted price and was able to secure pneumococcal vaccines at less than 5 percent of the public market price in the United States.

The NewsHour’s global health unit will explore the impact the pneumococcal vaccine has had on Nicaragua during a reporting trip in October.

*For the record, the NewsHour’s global health coverage is funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.