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WHO Is Fighting for Cheaper Vaccines for Refugees and Others in Crisis Situations

In the wake of a natural disaster or in the midst of war, the cost of vaccines can make a humanitarian crisis much worse, allowing deadly diseases to spread to vulnerable populations including children.

The World Health Organization is trying to change that. A new effort by the WHO aims to convince pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of vital vaccines during emergencies and get them to vulnerable populations faster than before.

The WHO gathered leaders from the pharmaceutical industry and humanitarian aid groups in Geneva last week to discuss a “humanitarian vaccine mechanism” that, when triggered by a crisis somewhere in the world, would allow groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres to buy vaccines at rock-bottom prices to get to those in need, according to Reuters.

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The effort hasn’t yet produced an agreement, but last month GlaxoSmithKline announced that it would lower the price of its pneumonia vaccine for humanitarian groups in emergency situations.

The announcement was a major victory for Medecins Sans Frontieres, which had been calling on GSK and Pfizer to either drop their prices or show proof to the world that they could not lower the prices any more without losing money.

GlaxoSmithKline had resisted dropping its price for the aid groups, noting that it already provided its lowest-price vaccine to government agencies and could not allow others to buy it at that price without hurting its business.

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Now, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the WHO want other major manufacturers like Pfizer and Merck to agree to lower their vaccine prices in emergencies too, according to the Reuters report. The mechanism could only be used in emergencies and could cover up to 23 vaccines against diseases like yellow fever, cholera, rabies, polio, and hepatitis.  

Philippe Duclos, a senior WHO expert on immunization, told Reuters the plan would help determine which vaccines are needed in each emergency quickly and then get them to people in need.

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"We're talking about a very specific cohort — refugees, displaced populations, people who have gone through a lot of trauma and have had to flee their homes," Greg Elder, a medical coordinator with MSF, told Reuters. "It's a small group of people who are caught in the middle of emergencies and can fall through the gaps. And it's a minute fraction of their (the drug companies') global market."

Pneumonia remains the leading cause of child mortality worldwide despite the existence of a vaccine, killing almost one million children every year. Children in crisis areas like those in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where healthcare systems have collapsed, are especially vulnerable. An agreement to lower the cost of the pneumonia vaccine and other critical vaccines could help save millions of lives around the world each year.