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[NEW DELHI] An unusual vaccine development collaboration, which should lead to the launch of a cheap meningitis vaccine for Sub-Saharan Africa later this year, is emerging as a feasible way forward in the quest to make newer vaccines affordable in developing countries.

The Serum Institute of India's vaccine for meningitis — a bacterial infection of the brain — was developed under an unusual technology transfer pact with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is expected to receive certification this month from the WHO, and UNICEF will supply 40 million doses to Sub-Saharan Africa later this year.

Meningitis can be prevented with vaccination, but the technology is complex and beyond the capacity of scientists in developing countries.

Under the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP), first mooted in 2001, the US National Institutes of Health licensed a conjugate vaccine technology to the Serum Institute, which agreed to produce the vaccine cheaply in exchange for technical know-how.

If made by large pharmaceutical companies the meningitis vaccine would have cost US$2.5-3 per dose but, under the Serum Institute, the vaccine will cost 50 US cents per dose — a limit imposed by the NIH after consulting with African nations. Profits will be driven by the 'low cost, high volume' principle rather than 'high cost, low volume'.

"The collaboration is the first of its kind," S. S. Jadhav, executive director of the Serum Institute, told SciDev.Net. "The key was the transfer of technology from NIH".

A report from the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam — released last month (11 May) — describes the collaboration as an "intriguing model" of vaccine development in developing countries, in which a vaccine with specific characteristics tailored to a particular population is developed at a modest cost and provisions to ensure sustainable access are built in from the start.

Four factors crucial to the project's success, says the report, are: focus on low cost; identification of a single supplier for a single product; technology transfer from a publicly funded institute and partnership with an emerging country supplier.

The model can help "guide private companies in a research direction that developing countries need," Shamnad Basheer, an intellectual property law professor at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, told SciDev.Net.

The approach "does not need tinkering with the existing patent laws or major policy changes. It is devised within the contours of existing patent laws", he added.