The Government has promised to help underwrite the research and development costs of GlaxoSmithKline's experimental malaria vaccine, in an effort to guarantee that the promising new medicine reaches the world's poorest countries.
GSK says it must make a commercial return on the vaccine, and the pharmaceutical industry has been accused of dragging its feet because malaria-infected countries are unlikely to be able to afford typical vaccines prices. The disease kills up to two million people every year.
The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, described GSK's scientific breakthrough in malaria as "a revolution in our times" yesterday and said the UK would commit to buying up to 300 million doses of the vaccine for distribution by aid agencies. "We need to ensure that the vaccine does go into commercial production and is available at affordable prices," he said.
GSK said last month that a trial involving 2,000 children in Mozambique had shown the vaccine protected 30 per cent of them against the disease for at least six months, a breakthrough that scientists said could mean an effective malaria vaccine is finally within reach.
The company expects that, if proved effective, the vaccine could be launched by 2010, but the Government believes it could be ready in three years if its guarantee of advance orders stimulates competition for GSK.
The industry believes the vaccine must generate sales of at least £1.6bn to justify the expense of conducting the final trials in up to 20,000 patients.
The Government expects that its commitment will be matched by France and the Gates Foundation, the charity set up by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.