The tide of bad press the pharmaceutical industry gets has been stemmed a little with the news that some of the sector's big players have cut the price of vaccines for people in poor countries.

Ahead of a high-profile pledging conference in London on June 13, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co and other companies have made commitments to the GAVI Alliance to significantly lower their prices for vaccines to treat deadly diseases. GSK has offered to provide its rotavirus vaccine to GAVI at $2.50 per dose, or $5 to fully immunise a child, in response to a request from UNICEF.

GAVI says the offer is a 67% reduction in the current lowest available public price, while GSK stated that it has committed to supply 125 million doses of Rotarix to GAVI over the next five years at a 95% reduction of the price to developed Western markets. Rotavirus causes 500,000 childhood deaths each year.

Merck has also stated that it will offer its rotavirus vaccine RotaTeq to UNICEF at $5.00 per dose and the price will decrease to $3.50 once the purchase volume increases to 30 million doses. The US major is also providing its human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil against cervical cancer for $5 per dose, again a 67% reduction in the current public price.

In addition, Johnson & Johnson's Crucell unit and Sanofi Pasteur will extend GAVI prices on their pentavalent vaccines to the 16 countries expected to continue vaccination programmes once GAVI support ends. Sanofi also confirmed that this would also apply to its yellow fever vaccine and the rotavirus vaccine being developed by its Indian subsidiary Shantha Biotechnics.

Commitment from Indian drugmakers

The India-based firms Serum Institute and Panacea Biotec have also committed to price reductions on their pentavalent vaccines, which protect against "five potential killers" -  diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae type b. Serum, which had already lowered its price to $1.75 per dose, the lowest available today, announced it would continue to provide "the most competitive pricing and encouraged other manufacturers to follow its lead". Panacea has committed to lower its prices by up to 15%.

Helen Evans, GAVI’s interim chief executive, said "these are promising offers that demonstrate industry commitment to work towards affordable and sustainable prices for life-saving vaccines in developing countries. We congratulate all manufacturers who have responded to our call in the lead-up to the pledging conference".

GSK's chief executive Andrew Witty told the BBC that "what we need is a return to invest in the next generation of new vaccines and drugs and that has to come from the profits of the medicines or the vaccines". However, he added that "it's obvious that if you're in Kenya or a slum in Malawi or somewhere like that, there is no capacity for those people to contribute to it, so they have to be helped out by the contribution from the middle and the richer (countries)."

Aid agencies have responded positively to the news. Save the Children’s chief executive Justin Forsyth singled out GSK’s price reduction for Rotarix, describing it as a landmark move, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children". He went on to say that it is important that "GAVI now uses this to spur other vaccine producers to reduce prices and work to foster greater competition…to drive prices down even further and help even more children".

Bill and Melinda Gates issued a statement saying that "we’re particularly excited about the offers for rotavirus vaccine because the shock of learning that more than 500,000 children die each year from a preventable disease that causes severe diarrhoea is what drew us to work in global health in the first place".

GAVI is seeking $3.7 billion from the donor conference in London to help deliver vaccines to nearly a quarter of a billion children by 2015, which it hopes will save 4 million lives.