RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two million, that is the number of babies who were at risk because the pharmaceutical company Merck stopped providing a lifesaving vaccine to several West African countries. At the same time, Merck was going to start selling the vaccine at a higher price to China. NPR broke that story last fall. And now we have good news to report. Those babies will still get the vaccine. As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, other companies are now stepping in.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The vaccine is for a disease called rotavirus, which infects basically every child on the planet.
MATHURAM SANTOSHAM: Every child, whether you live in the U.S. or you live in a developing country, is infected with this disease.
DOUCLEFF: That's Dr. Mathuram Santosham, a Johns Hopkins University pediatrician and an expert on rotavirus. He says the disease causes very severe diarrhea. Here in the U.S., children can easily get treatment at a hospital. But in poor countries without good health care systems, rotavirus can be deadly.
SANTOSHAM: It can be a very severe disease. Like, I've seen kids die right in front of my eyes.
DOUCLEFF: Santosham says rotavirus still kills about 200,000 children and babies each year because families in poor countries can't afford the vaccine. Here in the U.S., it costs about $200 a course. So back in 2012, the two companies that manufacture the vaccine, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, agreed to drastically reduce the price for low-income countries to about $10 a course. Merck would supply four countries in West Africa, and GlaxoSmithKline would supply 42 countries. Santosham says this was great news.
SANTOSHAM: Kids should not be denied a vaccine just because they belong to a poor country.
DOUCLEFF: Merck stuck to that agreement for six years. Then, last year, the company announced it was ending the agreement. At the same time, Merck started selling the vaccine to China at a much higher price. Deborah Atherly is at the nonprofit PATH, which helps develop vaccines for poorer countries. She says the global health community was alarmed.
DEBORAH ATHERLY: You have a major manufacturer of a vaccine announcing that they're going to exit from the market, and I think it created a bit of a panic for countries that were accustomed to having this vaccine.
DOUCLEFF: It also meant that more than 2 million babies in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali and Sao Tome and Principe would go without the vaccine. That was November 2018. At the time, Merck told NPR in an email that the reason for the pullout was supply constraints. The company also expressed, quote, "deepest regret to all the parties involved." Soon after NPR reported that story, other vaccine manufacturers stepped up to fill in the gap.
GlaxoSmithKline is now supplying one country with the vaccine. And Atherly says two Indian companies, Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India, will supply the other countries. And Atherly says no child will miss out on immunization because of Merck's termination of the agreement.
ATHERLY: We do not anticipate that any countries will have a gap in vaccinating their children.
DOUCLEFF: And so you think of this as a pretty big success story.
ATHERLY: It is. We deal with tons of challenges in global health. And this is one where the global health community rallying around with the countries has really created success.
DOUCLEFF: A success that means millions of babies will now be protected against a deadly disease. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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