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Merck, Wellcome Trust Back Project To Develop Improved Rotavirus Vaccine For Developing Countries

“A joint venture between U.S. drugmaker Merck and Britain’s Wellcome Trust charity said on Monday it is working on an oral rotavirus vaccine designed to be cheaper and easier to use than current shots,” Reuters reports. “Hilleman Laboratories, an India-based joint venture set up on a not-for-profit basis in 2009, said the vaccine will aim to protect against diarrhea-causing rotavirus infections and will be based on thin strips or granules that dissolve in the mouth and can be easily transported, stored and administered.”

Rotavirus, the leading cause of severe diarrhea, is believed to sicken millions of children annually, resulting in the deaths of a 500,000 children each year, according to the news service. “Currently available rotavirus shots, made by Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline, need to be kept in cold storage – making their transportation and delivery complex and costly” (Kelland, 1/24).

“With developing country needs in mind, we are targeting heat stability, ease of administration, package size, and cost of goods as key features of the product,” Akshay Goel, chief scientific officer at Hilleman Laboratories, said of the collaboration between Hilleman Laboratories, Merck and Medicine in Need (MEND), an international non-profit that specializes in advanced vaccine formulation technologies, in a Wellcome Trust press release (1/25).

“The move limits the potential for-profit sales of Merck’s Rotateq, although its sales in the developing world are currently limited by both the price and the need for refrigeration,” Financial Times writes (Jack, 1/25). The groups estimate “it will take 2-4 years in research and development activities to come out with the new vaccine,” Press Trust India/the Economic Times reports (1/24). By this time, the Financial Times notes, “patents will be expiring on Rotateq, launched in the U.S. in 2006” (1/25).

According to the WHO, “between 10 and 50 percent of vaccines may be wasted globally every year due to cold storage, shipping and other logistical problems,” Reuters continues (1/24).

“This technology has the potential to be a real game changer in vaccine development and delivery,” said David Heymann, chairman of the UK’s Health Protection Agency, who also chairs the Strategic Advisory Group of the Hilleman Laboratories, said the Wellcome Trust release. “This kind of R&D is needed to make effective vaccines available in resource-limited countries, so that they can be more easily used to decrease the impact of vaccine-preventable diseases,” he added (1/25).

Altaf Lal, Hilleman’s chief executive “said that if this initial work on rotavirus immunizations was successful, the venture would also seek to develop similar oral delivery technologies for other vaccines important to the health of people in poorer countries,” according to Reuters. The news service notes that “[t]he Merck/Wellcome rotavirus project follows a similar initiative for meningitis, which late last year resulted in the launch of a vaccine called MenAfricVac, specifically designed to be cheap enough for poor countries and to target a type of meningitis common in Africa” (1/24).