Gates-backed aid group to invest in HPV vaccines

GENEVA (Reuters) - An international partnership that funds vaccines for children in poor countries agreed on Wednesday to expand its scope and start investing in vaccinations aimed at adult women.

Gardasil, a Human Papillomavirus vaccine, is displayed at the Girls to Women Health and Wellness clinic in Dallas, Texas March 6, 2007. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

The board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), which is backed by the Gates Foundation, endorsed in Geneva a new $3.5 billion vaccine investment plan specifying diseases it will tackle from 2009 to 2020.

“This strategy will attack some of the world’s major killers and gives us a new challenge in our efforts to provide good health to the world’s most vulnerable people,” GAVI Executive Secretary Julian Lob-Levyt said in a statement.

A vaccine to immunize women against the human papilloma virus (HPV), the main cause of cervical cancer, and one to prevent miscarriages or birth defects caused by rubella virus, were among the seven priority investments approved by the board.

Merck & Co and GlaxoSmithKline have both recently introduced rival HPV vaccines, called Gardasil and Cervarix, that are seen by industry analysts as multi-billion-dollar sellers but are expensive for developing countries.

GAVI’s new spending strategy also prioritizes vaccines to protect children in impoverished nations against cholera, typhoid, rabies, meningitis A and Japanese encephalitis, according to a draft obtained by Reuters.

“The portfolio ... has the potential to avert approximately 2 million deaths across different age groups and all GAVI countries within 10 years,” according to the Geneva-based group, which supports immunizations in more than 70 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

“Moreover, with HPV and rubella vaccines, GAVI would have an opportunity to protect vulnerable women against a serious and fatal disease and congenital anomalies of their newborns,” it said in its report to the board, whose members include the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and vaccine makers.

The vaccination programs GAVI already supports for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles are thought to prevent 2.5 million child deaths a year. Such campaigns, as well as those for hepatitis B, yellow fever, pneumococcal disease and rotavirus, will continue alongside the new investments.

GAVI was launched in 2000 as a private-public partnership. Its major backers include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave it $1.5 billion, and governments including Britain, France, Norway, South Africa and Brazil.

The vaccines GAVI supports through market commitments and other programs are made by pharmaceutical companies including Crucell, Novartis, Sanofi Pasteur and Wyeth.

Editing by Dominic Evans