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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
New low-cost vaccine for Africa
By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Child being vaccinated against meningitis
Children are especially vulnerable to meningitis
For the first time, Europe's largest drugs company, GSK, is starting the registration process for a vaccine from which it never expects to make money.

Globorix will only be used in Africa to prevent meningitis at prices that may never cover its research costs.

Experts say it is a sign big companies are changing their business practices, but some critics say it is not enough.

Millions of people in Africa are at risk from meningitis, which can kill a child in six hours.

The new vaccine, Globorix, cost more than $400 million (204m) to develop, but will only be sold and used in Africa. It is aimed at meningitis A and C and will succeed an older vaccine called Titanrix - which covered hep B, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria and haemophilus influenza.

The company does not expect to get its money back.

GSK chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier says this is about a new way of doing business, not just good PR.

"We have found a pretty clever way to fund therapeutic solutions for the developing world without essentially sacrificing the more traditional research we do on diseases around the world," he said.

New attitude

But this isn't just about an attack of conscience - six years ago GSK and other big firms tried to sue the South African government for trying to buy cheap generic drugs to combat HIV and other diseases.

In the face of world wide public outrage they backed down.

Companies found themselves in a perfect storm - a PR disaster and a realisation that the old business model of profits above everything had to change.

There is a lot of room for improvement
Anne Laure Ropars
They looked for research funds from governments and charities, and teamed up with smaller firms in India and China.

As a result diseases once overlooked got more attention, said Anne Laure Ropars, an academic who has studied the way big firms deal with "neglected diseases".

Nevertheless, some critics say Globorix should be available more widely.

'Neglected diseases'

Others point out that there are 12 big pharmaceutical firms worldwide but only four have centres specialising in diseases like TB, malaria and HIV.

"While a few companies such as GSK have sharply increased their research into drugs and vaccines for neglected diseases, there is still a lot of room for improvement across the board," Anne Laure Ropars said.

Globorix could soon start coming off a production line at a factory in Belgium.

Teaming up with people like Bill Gates means vaccines for malaria, TB and eventually Aids may follow.

It seems changing the way big pharmaceutical companies do business can also save lives.

Dr Richard Barker from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said: "This is only one of many things that the pharmaceutical companies are doing for the developing world.

"For the last five or six years the industry has spent something like two and a half billion of its own money developing medicines for neglected diseases, giving away or giving at cost medicines to sub Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the world.

"So this is not an isolated example of a general response."

GSK chief executive's says he was 'very glad' to do it

Meningitis and septicaemia
22 Jan 04 |  Medical notes
Africa rises to HIV drug challenge
08 Jun 06 |  Business
GSK aims to stop Aids profiteers
21 Feb 05 |  Business
Glaxo in dock over Aids drugs
17 Oct 03 |  Business
Meningitis A vaccine hope
18 Mar 03 |  Health
Cheap malaria drug approved
06 Aug 03 |  Health

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