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First up is likely to be a homegrown vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease that can cause seizures, paralysis and death. The vaccine has been used for two decades in China with fewer side effects than other versions. Its manufacturer expects WHO approval for it in about a year. Also in the works are vaccines for polio and diseases that are the top two killers of children -- pneumonia and rotavirus, which causes diarrhea.
Vaccines also are a significant part of a $300 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the development of new health and farming products for poor countries.
China's entry into this field is important because one child dies every 20 seconds from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. UNICEF, the children's agency and the world's biggest buyer of vaccines, has been in talks with Chinese companies, said its supply director Shanelle Hall. The fund provides vaccines to nearly 60 percent of the world's children, and last year spent about $757 million.
Worldwide, vaccine sales last year grew 14 percent to $25.3 billion, according to healthcare market research firm Kalorama Information, as drugmakers which face intensifying competition from generic drugs now see vaccines as key areas of growth, particularly in Latin America, China and India.
China's vaccine makers, some of whom already export in small amounts, are confident they will soon become big players in the field.
"I personally predict that in the next five to 10 years, China will become a very important vaccine manufacture base in the world," said Wu Yonglin, vice president of the state-owned China National Biotec Group, the country's largest biological products maker that has been producing China's encephalitis vaccine since 1989.
CNBG will invest more than 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) between now and 2015 to improve its facilities and systems to meet WHO requirements, Wu said. The company also intends to submit vaccines to fight rotavirus, which kills half a million kids annually, and polio for WHO approval.
Smaller, private companies are also positioning themselves for the global market.
Sinovac is now testing a new vaccine for enterovirus 71, which causes severe hand, foot and mouth disease among children in China and other Asian countries. It is also preparing for clinical trials on a pneumococcal vaccine Yang says could rival Pfizer's Prevnar, which was the top-selling vaccine worldwide last year with sales of about $3.7 billion.
Pneumococcal disease causes meningitis, pneumonia and ear infection.
"In the short term, everyone sees the exporting opportunities, because outside of China the entire vaccine market still seems to be monopolized by a few Big Pharma (companies)," Yang said.
The entry of Chinese companies is expected to further pressure Western pharmaceutical companies to lower prices. Earlier this year, UNICEF's move to publicize what drugmakers charge it for vaccines showed that Western drugmakers often charged the agency double what companies in India and Indonesia do.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders criticized the vaccine body GAVI for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on anti-pneumonia vaccines from Western companies, saying it could put its buying power to even better use by fostering competition from emerging manufacturers like those in China.
GAVI's Schwalbe said the vaccine body has to buy what is available and negotiates hard for steep discounts. "We need to buy vaccines now to save children's lives now. We can't wait."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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