US pharmaceutical giant Merck and British research charity Wellcome Trust on Thursday announced a joint venture to develop "affordable" vaccines for poor countries. The non-profit joint venture will be based in India, the two companies said on Thursday.
The partners would invest equally in the research and development project, which will be primed with a combined cash contribution of $148 million over seven years, the companies said in a joint statement. This is the first time that a drug manufacturer and a charity have joined forces to create vaccines for the developing world.
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 poor regions have adequate access to medicine.
The joint venture will be called Hilleman Laboratories - named after scientist Maurice Hilleman who worked at Merck and developed more than 30 vaccines. Although the precise location in India has not yet been identified, it will have a staff of 60. It is expected to be operational next year.
The new outfit 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. Indian generic drug companies will be the "first to be called" to collaborate and play a key role in manufacture.
Merck and Wellcome said they hoped other pharmaceutical groups would collaborate in future. In the long term, Hilleman Laboratories should become self-sufficient, since it should be able to sell some of its innovations in rich countries, the statement said.