WILL the world eradicate polio? If it does, some of the credit may go to a 73-year-old billionaire horse-breeder from the Indian city of Pune: he wants to provide injectable polio vaccine at a loss—at least for some time.
The world has made much progress in the fight against polio, a dreaded disease which leaves infected children paralysed. India is a good example. In 1985 the country counted more than 150,000 cases. Next January, after three years without a new case, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative will formally declare India polio-free.
The effort to get there has been monumental. During India’s National Immunisation Day, for instance, more than 2.5m volunteers inoculate over 170m children under the age of five. Since each child receives two drops of the vaccine, an astonishing 340m drops of oral polio vaccine (OPV), a vaccine developed in the 1950s by Albert Sabin, a Polish-American scientist, is needed.
Given such massive quantities, pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur, have been able to keep the prices of the polio vaccine low. A two-drop dose of OPV costs between $0.10 and $0.13.
But the injectable polio vaccine (IPV) is a better way to inoculate children against the disease: it is safer because it does not carry the live virus. Unhappily, it is also more expensive. Still, nearly 140 countries, including India, will be relying on the IPV in the coming years, says Apoorva Mallya of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The shift to IPV is a key part of the endgame in the fight against polio.
This is where Cyrus Poonawalla, the billionaire horse-breeder, comes in. He is the founder and chief executive of the Serum Institute. Although it is lesser known than its European and American competitors—GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Merck and Novartis—the firm is the world’s number one producer of measles and DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccines. Globally, two of three children receive a Serum vaccine, according to some estimates.
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