Drug Makers Will Help Expand Access To The HPV Vaccine By Dropping Prices In Poor Countries

(Credit: Partners In Health)

Two pharmaceutical giants — Merck and GlaxoSmithKline — have announced that they will drop their prices for HPV vaccines that help protect against cervical cancer to about $4.50 per dose for the world’s poorest countries. The move may help tens of millions of girls in dozens of developing nations gain access to life-saving medications that they would previously have been unable to afford.

Although some critics noted that the companies could drop their prices even further, spokespeople for Merck and Glaxo emphasized that they expected the vaccines’ costs to plummett further in the future. That’s particularly significant given that 275,000 women in poor countries die from cervical cancer every year, mainly due to the high costs of preventative medical services:

The low price will initially apply to a few million doses for demonstration projects in Kenya, Ghana, Laos, Madagascar and elsewhere, but Dr. Seth Berkley, the alliance’s chief executive officer, said he hoped that by 2020, 30 million girls in 40 countries would get the vaccine at that price or less.

The vaccines cost about $130 a dose in the United States, and each girl needs three doses. The lowest price that any other agency or government has negotiated, Dr. Berkley said, is the $13 paid by the Pan American Health Organization, which negotiates a bulk price for Latin American countries. […]

Dr. Berkley described the new prices as a ceiling, and said he expected them to go down as millions more doses were ordered and as rival vaccine makers from lower-cost countries like India and China entered the field. Other companies, including the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, are developing papillomavirus vaccines, but at the moment only the Glaxo and Merck vaccines have approval from the World Health Organization.

Combined with robust public outreach efforts to administer the vaccinations, the lower prices could swell the ranks of immunized women in developing nations beyond the U.S.’s current rates, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has deemed “unacceptably low.”

In fact, the financial and medical benefits of the price cut for poor women could be even greater if the shots are given to younger girls aged nine to 13. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that just two doses of the vaccine were enough to immunize girls in that age range, as opposed to the usual three — meaning that women in developing nations could be protected for a lifetime for just $9 or even less.

Drug accessibility in developing nations has always been a major problem in the public health community, since brand name pharmaceutical companies tend to charge much more for their products than residents of such countries can afford. These drug makers also extend the life of their product patents through gimmicks such as adding “inactive ingredients” to the original medications. The Indian Supreme Court recently ruled against pharmaceutical giant Novartis for precisely this, instead siding with a generic drug manufacturer that distributes a much cheaper — but equally effective — version of the brand name company’s cancer drug. Merck and Glaxo’s proactive decision to cut their HPV vaccine prices means that there are even bigger savings in the future as generic drug makers step up their efforts to compete in the pharmaceutical marketplace.