Multinational drug companies, like other businesses, see Africa as an emerging market with tremendous opportunities and challenges, and that was a backdrop to Thursday's announcements of two programs designed to deliver more medicine and better health care to the continent.
Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc joined the GAVI alliance in announcing from Cape Town, South Africa, an agreement to supply human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine at lower prices to developing countries to help girls and women in those nations avoid cervical cancer.
A few hours later, Glaxo chief executive officer Andrew Witty joined Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth in Nairobi, Kenya, to announce a $23 million program to increase vaccinations, train health-care workers, and deliver better care for basic but deadly problems such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition.
One example in the works is reformatting an antiseptic mouthwash that Glaxo makes into a gel that can be applied to the umbilical stump of newborns to ward off infection.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created the GAVI alliance, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and stands for Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Bill Gates has championed using market forces and measurements to help achieve greater success in philanthropic efforts to improve health in the developing world.
GAVI said that of the 275,000 women in the world who die of cervical cancer every year, more than 85 percent are in low-income countries. UNICEF will administer the program, for which countries must apply. The price they pay will be determined by the nation's relative wealth, with richer countries paying more.
GAVI CEO Seth Berkley said that with Merck and Glaxo on board to provide HPV vaccine for a lower price, he hopes other drug companies will seek to join the market, making more medicine available at still lower prices.
Merck is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. Gardasil, Merck's HPV vaccine, is made at the company's facility in West Point, Montgomery County, and had $1.6 billion in sales in 2012.
"It is essential that every young girl around the world have access to HPV vaccines," Julie Gerberding, president of Merck Vaccines, said in a statement.
HPV vaccine requires three doses and can cost $100 in developed countries. Merck and Glaxo will provide their HPV vaccine for $4.50 and $4.60 per dose, respectively, to GAVI. The lowest previous public-sector price was $13.
Philadelphia native Kate Elder, the vaccines policy adviser for Doctors Without Borders, said the prices were still "unjustifiably high" and unaffordable for most governments where cervical cancer is a problem.
Glaxo, based in London, has employees in Philadelphia and its suburbs. North America pharmaceuticals president Deirdre Connelly said the company would match employee contributions to Save the Children dollar for dollar.