The Gates Foundation hopes to boost vaccine development and distribution. Credit: Bananastock

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today promised to put $10 billion towards a 10-year effort to boost vaccination against infectious disease in developing countries. It is the foundation's largest commitment yet to the discovery, development and distribution of vaccines.

The announcement, made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, comes as the GAVI alliance — another vaccine initiative supported in part by the Gates Foundation — celebrates its ten-year anniversary. GAVI has been credited with distributing vaccines to 257 million children and preventing 5 million deaths. The alliance has also been instrumental in bringing the world vaccination rate against hepatitis B up from about 15% in 1999 to nearly 70%, says Adel Mahmoud, a global health researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey. "This is very serious stuff," says Mahmoud. "GAVI's success with hepatitis B was tremendous."

According to a model developed at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, the new $10 billion commitment could save up to 7.6 million children by targeting viruses that cause diarrhoea and pneumonia. If the RTS,S vaccine against malaria, currently in clinical trials (see 'Malaria vaccine enters phase III clinical trials'), is introduced by 2014, 1.1 million other children could be saved.

The Gates Foundation has already dedicated $4.5 billion to vaccines but says that much more would be needed to immunize 90% of the world's children. "Part of this is a call to action," says Joe Cerrell, director of the foundation's Europe office in London. "We are trying to make sure that governments and others are doing all that they can to support more immunization coverage."

Improving vaccination against rotavirus — the leading cause of severe diarrhoea in infants and children — is one area that could benefit, notes Mahmoud. The rotavirus vaccine was shown to reduce disease by over 60% when introduced in South Africa and Malawi1. But the vaccines, first licensed in 2006, are still relatively new. "The general feeling is: who is going to champion their introduction in the developing world?" says Mahmoud. "To this date there is no clear-cut plan. So if the Gates Foundation comes up with something very robust in this area, it will really make a difference."