updated 9/17/2009 2:56:03 PM ET 2009-09-17T18:56:03

Drugmaker Merck & Co. and Britain's largest charity, the Wellcome Trust, said Thursday they are starting a not-for-profit partnership to create affordable vaccines against diseases common in poor countries.

The joint research venture will develop new vaccines for diseases with unmet need and work to improve existing vaccines, such as by finding lower-cost production methods or tweaking them to make them stable at room temperature.

Most vaccines must be refrigerated during shipment and storage, limiting their use in developing countries. High prices also make vaccines out of reach in countries with small health care budgets, although some charities and vaccine makers provide them at reduced prices in developing nations.

Merck will have the first rights to license any vaccines developed by the partnership, which will consult with experts around the world to pick initial projects. One priority, though, will be a vaccine against Group A Streptococcus, which kills more than 500,000 people a year worldwide.

Merck and the Wellcome Trust will initially put up equal cash contributions — a total of $130 million over the next seven years.

Other funding could come from grants for specific projects, donations from governments and charities, or investments and licensing fees from for-profit pharmaceutical or biotech companies, said Merck spokeswoman Amy Rose.

"The goal here is to involve a number of parties that would be interested in the success of vaccines in the developing world," including university researchers, she said.

The venture will be based in India and will have about 60 researchers and developers on staff, including some from Merck. It is expected to begin operating sometime next year.

Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck and Wellcome said it's the first time a research charity and a drug company have set up an organization that equally shares funding and decision-making.

The venture will be called the MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories, for the corporate name Merck uses in many foreign countries, Merck Sharp & Dohme, and Maurice Hilleman, a former Merck scientist credited with developing more than 30 vaccines against measles, mumps, hepatitis B and other diseases.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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