Merck JV looking at new rotavirus vaccine for poor

LONDON (Reuters) - 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.

Vaccines sit on a tray in a hospital in this file photo. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

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.

Diarrhea is one of the top two killers of children under five worldwide, and rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrheal disease in children. Each year, rotavirus-related diarrhea kills more than 500,000 children and is the cause of many millions more needing hospital treatment.

Vaccines are often the best hope for tackling many diseases in poor countries, but in many cases they are either too expensive or unsuited to tropical conditions.

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.

Akshay Goel, Hilleman’s chief scientific officer, told Reuters in a telephone interview the researchers would be looking specifically at heat stability, ease of administration, package size and low cost as key features of the vaccine.

The team are also working with Medicine in Need (MEND), an international non-profit organization which specializes in advanced drug and vaccine delivery technologies.

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“Many first-generation vaccines have not been developed with the specific needs of countries with poor infrastructure for vaccine delivery in mind,” said Altaf Lal, Hilleman’s chief executive. He said Hilleman hoped to be ready with a product within four years which could then be manufactured by drugmakers and sold at an affordable price to developing countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 10 and 50 percent of vaccines may be wasted globally every year due to cold storage, shipping and other logistical problems.

Altaf 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.

“This technology has the potential to be a real game changer in vaccine development and delivery,” David Heymann, chairman of Britain’s Health Protection Agency and also chair of Hilleman Laboratories’ strategic advisory group, said in a statement.

Merck and Wellcome said in 2009 they would invest equally in Hilleman, which was launched with a combined cash contribution of 90 million pounds ($144 million) over seven years.

The 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.

Developed by the non-profit organization PATH and the WHO, it costs just 50 cents per dose and protects against bacterial meningitis A, a strain that causes annual epidemics which kill thousands every year in Africa.

Editing by Jon Loades-Carter