Scientific American has learned that finance ministers from at least three Western countries are scheduled to meet in Rome next week to announce a pilot program for delivering next-generation vaccines more rapidly to poor nations. An official for the GAVI Alliance, an international vaccines group, confirmed that the project would be the first step of a controversial plan to pay qualifying vaccine makers a higher price than they would ordinarily receive for their products in impoverished areas hard hit by infectious diseases.

Italy, Canada and the U.K. are expected to donate approximately $1 billion toward a pool for vaccine purchases, Andrew Jones, a GAVI Alliance senior program officer, told Scientific American. He says that discussions are ongoing with five other countries (Spain, Norway, Russia, Ireland and the Netherlands), two of which will likely donate another $500 million combined to the effort. "To have this amount of money going to global health is just great," he says. U.S. officials were positive about the project but declined to participate, citing a lack of funds, he adds.

According to an e-mail forwarded from the Italian finance ministry, the new program, called an advance market commitment (AMC), will pay for vaccines against pneumococcus, a bacterium that kills up to one million children every year. The GAVI Alliance projects that a successful AMC program could save up to 5.4 million lives by 2030, Jones says. He adds that officials will hammer out key details over the next year, including the price per dose and the efficacy a vaccine must demonstrate to be eligible for purchase.

Wyeth introduced a pneumococcal vaccine in 2006, and both Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline have more comprehensive versions in development.

The AMC is designed to create stronger incentives for industry to invest in vaccines that are tailored to poor countries' needs. Global aid organizations typically only pay for vaccines a few years at a time, making it hard to establish markets for those products. "It's been difficult to get the public sector to make long-term commitments," says Jones. The AMC "gives manufacturers a much bigger certainty about this market."

Critics have charged that AMCs will reward companies for mediocre vaccines and could detract from research funding. Even supporters acknowledge that under an AMC, industry would still face significant uncertainty about the number of doses they could expect to sell.

The Group of Eight nations had announced in 2005 it would investigate a pilot AMC program, but the group's last meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, failed to reach a consensus.