LONDON (Reuters) - The GAVI international vaccines group is moving towards a price deal with drugmakers which could mean the supply of millions of doses of cut-price cervical cancer vaccines to developing nations.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) said on Thursday if the deal - which would cover vaccines made by U.S. drugmaker Merck (MRK.N) and its British rival GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) - was secured at the right price it could have a huge impact on the health of millions of women in poorer countries.
More than 85 percent of the 275,000 cervical cancer deaths each year occur in developing nations. Experts say the annual worldwide cervical cancer death rate could rise to 430,000 by 2030 if no action is taken to protect women from it.
Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix vaccines are the world's only two approved shots designed to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes most cases of cervical cancer.
A spokesman for GAVI told Reuters "at least one" of these pharmaceutical firms had made "encouraging progress towards an acceptable price" for GAVI eligible countries.
"This is a relatively new vaccine, with low initial volumes for GAVI countries and therefore high fixed costs per unit," he said. "We believe that the commitments move GAVI in the right direction to obtain an acceptable price."
Merck said last year it was prepared to offer Gardasil to GAVI countries at a deeply discounted price of $5 per dose, meaning a three-dose course would cost $15. GAVI said at the time that was "a good starting offer".
A GSK spokesman said the British firm was in talks with GAVI and wanted to help make Cervarix available to women around the world, regardless of their income and where they live.
"GSK is committed to offering the lowest prices for its vaccines to the poorest countries," he said, adding that prices were also determined by volumes, the length of contracts, and the guaranteed number of doses to be purchased by global organisations, governments and others.
The GAVI spokesman would not name the specific company he said was making "progress" and would not give any details on price, but said GAVI would continue to work with manufacturers in a tender process aimed at ensuring the vaccine could be made available at "an acceptable price".
If eligible countries can demonstrate their ability to reach girls with HPV vaccines and the drugmakers can satisfy GAVI's supply and price requirements "up to a million girls and young women could be protected from cervical cancer by 2015 in a handful of countries," GAVI said in a statement.
This would increase to more than 20 million in nearly 30 countries by the end of the decade, it added.
GAVI, which is backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Bank, UNICEF, donor governments and others, funds bulk-buy vaccination programmes for poorer nations that can't afford shots at developed-economy prices.
Since it was set up in 2000, the group has financed the immunisation of more than 326 million children and says it has prevented more than 5.5 million premature deaths.
"The HPV vaccine...is critical to women and girls in poorer countries because they usually do not have access to screening to detect cervical cancer and treatment available in richer nations," GAVI's chief executive Seth Berkley said in the statement. "We are aiming to correct this inequity."
The alliance also said it was responding to WHO recommendations by offering funding for vaccines against the rubella virus, which can lead to birth defects and miscarriages.
It said forecasted demand suggests that more than 700 million children could be reached by 2015 and one billion by 2020 through campaigns and routine immunisation.
GAVI said it would fund rubella vaccines through a combined measles-rubella (MR) shot, supporting international efforts to eliminate rubella as well as measles.
Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Helen Massy-Beresford