Merck & Co and the Wellcome Trust are setting up a not-for-profit joint venture to develop affordable vaccines for low-income countries.

The partners announced the creation of the MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories at a press conference in London. They said that the JV, which will be based in India and will have 60 staff, “marks the first time a research charity and a pharmaceutical company have partnered to form a separate entity with equally shared funding and decision-making rights”.

Cashwise, Merch and the Wellcome Trust will invest equally in the R&D project, starting with a combined cash contribution of £90 million over seven years. The partners said that Hilleman Laboratories will fill “an important gap in how vaccines get developed” as many scientists from academia and government identify candidates but then face “significant technical challenges in designing suitable vaccine formulations, production processes and clinical programmes”. That expertise is “typically available only within large vaccine companies”, the partners said.

Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust, said that “linking the ingenuity of academic research with the know-how of industry is vital if we are to produce a new generation of vaccines to reduce the burden of infectious diseases in low-income countries”. He added that Merck is the “ideal partner”.

Altaf Lal, who has been appointed chief executive of Hilleman Laboratories, added that “if we are successful at building new partnerships and collaborations with governments, other companies and NGOs, I am confident that we will be successful in delivering vaccines to the people who need them”.

The partners concluded by saying that while an initial portfolio of projects will be selected “only after consultation with the international community and careful technical assessment”, examples of the kind of programmes being considered include developing vaccines that do not require refrigeration, and a vaccine against Group A streptococci which causes more than 500,000 deaths per year worldwide.