Merck JV plans to show up J&J, Sanofi with low-cost cholera vaccine

While the world already has a pair of cholera vaccines that have been proven safe and effective, it lacks a low-cost option that can stay effective without cold storage in impoverished areas where the disease hits hardest. And with a new partnership, that's exactly what Merck's ($MRK) Indian joint venture is looking to change.

Hilleman Laboratories, the New Delhi-based JV between Merck and Wellcome Trust, has teamed up with Gotovax AB, a spinoff from Sweden's University of Gothenburg, to develop an affordable, easy-to-administer vaccine for the disease, which kills an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 people each year.

Under the agreement, Hilleman will gain worldwide exclusive rights to Gotovax's candidate, further developing the powder vaccine and taking it through clinical trials that CEO Davinder Gill hopes will begin next year, he told The Wall Street Journal.

Hilleman Laboratories CEO Davinder Gill

"There is an urgent need of highly effective and affordable cholera vaccines both for outbreaks as well as mass vaccination campaigns," Gill said in a statement. "… We expect our vaccine to significantly reduce the burden of disease thanks to our lower price, increased thermostability and reduction of projected gap in supply by current manufacturers."

Those current manufacturers include Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) subsidiary Crucell as well as Sanofi ($SNY), which market Dukoral and Shanchol, respectively. As the Journal notes, Dukoral is too pricey for most poor countries, with a cost of between $4 and $9 per dose, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. The large quantities of water it requires make it difficult to deliver, and it can also only last a few weeks without refrigeration.

While Shanchol is considerably cheaper, costing around $1.85 per dose according to WHO, it also requires refrigeration.

As for Hilleman's vaccine, researchers created a strain that stably expresses two serotype antigens on its surface, improving the candidate's stability and efficacy as well as slashing production costs, Gotovax CEO Jan Holmgren said in a statement. The dry powder can survive temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius and should eventually cost "significantly less than one U.S. dollar," Gill told the WSJ.

Hilleman Laboratories Chairman Gerd Zettlmeissl

But Hilleman isn't stopping there. The company said it plans to flesh out its lineup of enteric vaccines by collaborating with both research institutes and vaccine manufacturing organizations in developing countries for large-scale production and distribution.

"This program complements our ongoing efforts in the development of an oral thermostable Rotavirus vaccine and strengthens our vision of building a portfolio of enteric vaccines," Hilleman Chairman Gerd Zettlmeissl said in a statement.

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