GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have signed up to an initiative that will provide cheap vaccines for pneumococcal disease to the world’s poorest countries.

The two giants are the first two pharmaceutical companies to take part in the ‘Advance Market Commitment’ for pneumococcal disease scheme, which is described as “an innovative financing mechanism” piloted by Geneva-based GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation). The governments of Italy, the UK, Canada, Russia, Norway and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have committed $1.5 billion to launch the programme which guarantees a market for the drugmakers, plus initial funds.

GAVI notes that “by contracting significant volumes over the long-term, manufacturers can significantly reduce the cost of their vaccines”. GSK and Pfizer will each supply up to 300 million doses of Synflorix and Prevenar 13 respectively over a ten-year period.

These vaccines will be made available at $3.50 per dose to be paid by GAVI and the developing country governments that introduce the products. For 20% of the doses, companies will also receive an additional payment of $3.50 for each dose they provide, which is paid with AMC funds. This adds up to “a fraction (about 10%) of the current cost of pneumococcal vaccines in many industrialised countries", GAVI notes.

Supplies could start as early as this year and GAVI estimates that the introduction of “suitable and affordable” vaccines against pneumococcal disease, which causes illnesses such as pneumonia and meningitis, could save around 900,000 lives by 2015 and up to seven million by 2030. The disease takes the lives of 1.6 million people each year, including 800,000 children before their fifth birthday, and more than 90% of these deaths occur in developing countries.

GAVI noted that as well as GSK and Pfizer, two Indian groups, Panacea Biotec and the Serum Institute, are among firms that have registered to the programme and other companies have expressed interest in the pilot. As more companies participate in the AMC, the long-term vaccine price could drop further, it added.

GSK chief executive Andrew Witty said “the coalition that has made this possible is providing new means to transform global public health,” adding that the AMC is “precisely the sort of innovative model needed to accelerate access”. He went on to claim that the typical 15-20 year ‘vaccine gap’ between access in developed countries versus the world’s poorest countries is unacceptable” and now children in Africa will start to receive Synflorix this year.

His counterpart at Pfizer, Jeffrey Kindler, added that public-private partnerships such as the AMC “are critical to achieving true inroads” on broadening access to medicines.