Serum threatens Merck's Gardasil with low-cost competitor

Serum Institute of India, which has a history of undercutting its competition in the vaccine sphere, is expanding this undercutting game to HPV (human papillomavirus). Its low-cost competitor to Merck's ($MRK) Gardasil could hit the market in late 2018 at one-third the price.

Serum Institute of India Executive Director Suresh Jadhav

Merck sells Gardasil to the CDC at $113.54 per dose, and it has a contract to sell it to UNICEF at $4.50 per dose this year, Bloomberg reports. But Serum can beat that price, thanks to lower production costs. It hasn't settled on a price yet, but "[the vaccine] will be extremely affordable so that even the poorest of the poor countries can introduce it in their programs," Suresh Jadhav, executive director of Serum, told Bloomberg.

According to Bloomberg, Serum will run clinical trials in India and Africa this year. Like Gardasil, which was the second best-selling vaccine in 2013, Serum's vaccine would protect against four strains of HPV; Merck peer GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Cervarix protects against two strains. But late last year, Merck won FDA approval for a new-and-improved 9-valent version, which blocks the original four strains as well as its predecessor and has proven 97% effective at blocking an additional 5 strains.

Merck's Gardasil HPV vaccine--FierceBiotech file photo
Merck's Gardasil

A low-cost version of the Big Pharmas' vaccines could be a catalyst for developing countries to add an HPV vaccine to their routine childhood immunizations.

Serum is working on other affordable vaccines, too, such as a powdered measles vaccine, which doesn't require refrigeration and doesn't need to be reconstituted with water. Serum also has partnerships, including one with Cipla to market its vaccines in Europe and one with some German research institutes to develop a tuberculosis vaccine.

While Serum seems to have found its niche in low-cost vaccines, two can play at that game. Merck's Indian JV, Hilleman Labs, is working on a low-cost cholera vaccine. Hilleman teamed up with Swedish biotech Gotovax last year to develop the candidate, and after a few months it signed on a couple of Bangladeshi companies to speed up the process.

- see the Bloomberg story

Special Reports: Top 10 best-selling vaccines of 2013 | The top 5 vaccine makers by 2013 revenue - Merck - GlaxoSmithKline