By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Drugmakers Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have cut the price of cervical cancer shots in a deal that will deliver them to poor countries for less than $5 a dose.
The new record low price for human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines should mean millions of girls in developing countries can be protected against the disease, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) said on Thursday.
"By 2020 we hope to reach more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries," Seth Berkley, the group's chief executive, said in a statement announcing the price deal.
More than 85 percent of cervical cancer deaths are in poorer countries and globally, 275,000 women a year die of the disease. That means it kills more women worldwide than childbirth, according to GAVI, claiming a life every two minutes.
GAVI, a non-profit group that funds bulk-buy vaccine programs for poor countries, will deliver the cut-price shots.
It said in February that Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and Tanzania would be the first countries to get support in pilot projects.
The vaccines - Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix - can cost more than $100 in developed countries and have been introduced in immunization campaigns in rich regions like the United States and Europe in recent years.
They are generally given to girls aged around eight or nine and over to protect them against the human papillomavirus that causes almost all cervical cancers.
A study published in 2011 found that since 1980, new cervical cancer cases and deaths have dropped substantially in rich countries - mostly due to better screening and earlier detection - but increased sharply in poor regions. Sub-Saharan Africa has 22 percent of all cervical cancer cases worldwide.
"Developing countries bear an increasing burden of cervical cancer and it is only right that our girls should have the same protection as girls in other countries," said Richard Sezibera, former Health Minister of Rwanda and a GAVI board member.
The U.S. drugmaker Merck said it expects to supply around 2.4 million doses of Gardasil at $4.50 per dose to GAVI-eligible countries between 2013 to 2017. British rival GSK said its Cervarix shot would cost $4.60 per dose.
Yet critics said the deal was still far too expensive for many poor countries - particularly since the vaccines need to be given as three doses to ensure full protection against HPV.
"It will still cost nearly $14 to fully protect a girl against HPV," said Kate Elder of the international charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
"It's really disappointing that pharmaceutical companies haven't offered GAVI a much better deal."
MSF said Merck made $1.63 billion and GSK more than $416 million from their HPV vaccines in 2012 alone. It accused the companies of "seeking to maximize their profits on the backs of developing countries".
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by John Stonestreet)