June 30, 2006

Vaccine plan for poor could survive G8 setback

By Gilbert Le Gras

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A plan to develop a vaccine for poor
countries against the virus that causes pneumonia and
meningitis could still go forward even if G8 leaders meeting in
two weeks fail to agree on funding, officials said on Friday.

The Italian proposal is on the Group of Eight leaders'
agenda for its meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida July 15-17
and would cost the wealthiest nations $900 million, said an
Italian official, who added that the idea has broad support
outside the G8.

"My hope is that when leaders fully appreciate how large
the support for this is they will support it. One can imagine a
scenario where not all of the G8 support it but other donors
do," he said on condition of anonymity.

Either a critical mass of G8 countries would sign on to
fund the program or other countries that have begun to express
interest in it could make up the difference, officials said.

The overall program, which would also target other
diseases, has the potential to save 7 million lives a year, an
Italian government research paper states.

Three weeks ago, an official at the G8 finance minister's
meeting said Britain, Canada and Italy believed it made sense
to start the program with the pneumococcus virus, a cause of
deadly pneumonia and meningitis in children under five in poor
nations, because laboratory research is sufficiently advanced
to see quick results.

The United States says it backs the project in principle.
The G8 also includes Germany, Japan, France and Russia.

It is believed political horse-trading and domestic funding
issues have held up consensus within the G8.

It is not clear whether there will be enough G8 members in
agreement by mid-July for the group to proceed on its own with
a pilot project for pneumococcus.

But officials said other countries have started asking for
details on how the so-called advanced market commitments for
vaccines program would function.

"This is an idea that seems to get all the pieces right,"
World Bank senior health specialist Amie Baston said.

The World Bank and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and
Immunization, an umbrella group linking multilaterals and
nongovernmental organizations, have fleshed out the details.

"It's market based, where you're harnessing private sector
strength to do what they're good at by focusing on competition,
it's demand led so the countries have to want the product
before the money flows, it's results oriented in that no G8
money is used until the product's available and it meets
certain standards," Batson said.

The only serious concern publicly expressed so far is from
pharmaceuticals and nongovernmental organizations who told a
British government survey earlier this year they feared the
program might crowd out other research.

The project is ultimately aimed at fighting malaria,
HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis but countries had previously
identified pneumococcus, gastroenteritis and the human
papillomavirus as candidates for an initial pilot project.