Vaccine bonds: keeping kids – and your money – healthy

By Shabtai Gold, DPA,

Geneva : Government bonds are generally attractive to the layman investor as they are relatively safe. The saver can profit while not fretting over the markets.

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An initiative which has been getting off the ground in the past two years is trying to help those investors sleep even easier, knowing their money will go to the developing world to immunise children.

When buying the new “vaccine bonds”, people will be lending money to the 10-year-old Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi), a public-private partnership that includes governments, international agencies and the private sector.

“We are in a hurry to save lives,” said Dan Thomas, a deputy head of Gavi. “What can be a better investment?”

The alliance says it requires more money than donors annually give to reach its goals of stopping preventable deaths.

“What tends to happen,” said Gargee Ghosh at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “is that donors are quite sporadic”.

While the Gates Foundation gave seed money for Gavi, Ghosh explained, it knew mechanisms would have to be found to keep it afloat.

“It was always clear Gavi would need more money for its immunisation mission than what was coming from donors,” she added, noting that the immunisation programmes for the world’s poor had a bill of $30 billion.

The answer, which came into existence in 2006, largely at the initiative of Gordon Brown, the current British premier, has a heavy name: The International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm).

IFFIm issues bonds and sends the capital to Gavi, giving the group accelerated and predictable access to cash. So far, it has raised $1.6 billion, and is expecting more after announcing another issuance of $71 million to resident of Britain this month. The bonds yield 16 percent over five years.

“The money for vaccination is needed sooner rather than later,” said HSBC banker Malcolm Prince, who helped design the Vaccine Investment Plan. “This saves children’s lives.”

Ghosh said she was “tremendously excited” about the bond issuance.

By 2015, the timeframe for the United Nations’ Millennium Development goals, including the commitment to reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate, IFFIm wants to raise $4 billion. Gavi has already vaccinated 213 million children, preventing an estimated 3.4 million premature deaths.

“We go into the world’s capital markets and mobilise money today from bonds for frontloading vaccinations,” IFFIm Chairman Alan Gillespie said. “This is firmly committed money.”

The seven governments involved, including Britain, France, Spain and South Africa, have backed the bonds, and the funds are overseen by the World Bank, giving them a sovereign AAA rating.

Gavi gets the money now but governments can space out their donations.

“This mechanism turns small pledges over 20 years into immediate large amounts of money,” said Thomas at Gavi.

One criticism, made by Germany, was that the programme required a multi-year commitment which then left the donor no flexibility to change course.

The bonds, though, can make things more cost effective, since long-term planning allows for utilising cheaper options and the faster children are immunised, the fewer people will contract diseases, lowering the overall cost to health systems.

Also, said Prince at HSBC, by creating demand, the prices of vaccines were dropping. A hepatitis B vaccine, part of the Gavi project, dropped from $1.11 to $0.71.

“Because of the extra demand, there are now six competing (companies),” he said. “Competition is a key element to bringing prices down.”

Donors were testing other methods to bring down pricing, including committing to market prices for vaccines being developed.

Also, the Taskforce on Innovative International Financing has been set up to find new ways to fund health projects.

Anders Nordstrom, with the Swedish government’s development arm, said the taskforce was finalising options and would present a report in May. Ideas were being floated as well for water and sanitation projects.

Gavi, while not using amounts of money that would shock the folks cobbling together bailout packages, it is still huge as far as charities go. But what about smaller charities who don’t have the money to make money?

One possibility might be private equity funds which could then distribute smaller donations, though the idea was still being hammered out.

Ghosh believes that the next few years will see developments in how charities are financed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we came out of the crisis with more of a mind for social-investment-oriented products,” she said.