LONDON (Reuters) - Japan's Takeda Pharmaceuticals is to get $38 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a crucial, low-cost polio vaccine for use in developing countries.
As part of a global plan to eradicate the crippling disease, of which experts say the world could see the last case this year, countries will need to switch from using oral polio vaccine (OPV) to using so-called inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) to ensure the disease does not reappear.
Experts fear a substantial worldwide shortage of IPV once every country in the world is ready to make the switch, and polio eradication strategists have been looking at how to avert that shortfall by encouraging new manufacturers into the sector.
Chris Elias, the Gates Foundation's head of global development, said the partnership would help "ensure that the world has enough vaccine to get the job done and maintain a polio-free world".
Takeda said in a statement it would use the Gates funding to develop, license and supply at least 50 million doses per year of so-called Sabin-strain inactivated poliovirus vaccine (sIPV) to more than 70 developing countries.
The shot will be made available at an affordable price for countries supported by the GAVI vaccines alliance, which is backed by the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others to fund immunization programs in poor countries.
Polio invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours - and WHO's repeated warning is that as long as any polio virus is circulating, people are at risk.
But the world is now on the brink of wiping out polio forever, with only 12 cases of the contagious viral disease recorded worldwide so far this year - in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Global health experts say stopping all polio transmission is possible by the end of this year. The full official, global eradication of polio could be declared by the end of this decade.
Rajeev Venkayya, head of vaccines for Takeda, said the Gates funding would enable his firm to de-risk the investment needed to take the sIPV though final stage clinical trials, licensure, and then onto the market
The vaccine, which was originally licensed from the Japan Polio Research Institute, has already completed mid-stage Phase II trials, Venkayya said. Once it has been fully developed, tested and licensed, it will be manufactured at Takeda's facility in Hikari, Japan.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by G Crosse)