Bharat Biotech makes a splash on rotavirus with help from Indian PM Modi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing the launch of Rotavac--Courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office

Want to get maximum publicity for your drug launch? Have your nation's leader announce it. Most newspapers in India carried the story of the launch of a locally made vaccine, as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To be sure, Bharat Biotech's oral Rotavac for preventing rotavirus is India's first locally made vaccine for the virus and is to be the world's cheapest at less than a $1 a dose in a three-dose regimen. And there are only two other rotavirus vaccines on the global market.

Rotavirus is a major disease in India, which claims half the world's cases; the resulting diarrhea kills nearly 80,000 children under the age of 5 years annually. Rotavac was tested on 10,000 children in that age group and was shown to be 56% effective in the first two years and protective against several strains.

But getting your prime minister to announce it assured the word would be spread a week ahead of Rotavac actually being available. Modi said he hoped development of the vaccine would lead other Indian drugmakers to aspire to higher levels of research and development and manufacturing.

Bharat's "get" may not have been that hard since the India government played a large role in Rotavac's development in a public-private partnership involving its Ministry of Science and Technology and other government institutions. It also had the not-insignificant support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Modi also gave a nod to the United States and the collaboration between the two countries in medical research. Their India-U.S. Vaccine Action Programme chose Bharat Biotech India nearly 20 years ago to develop and produce the vaccine. A decade before that, the work started on what became Rotavac when a sample of rotavirus 116E was isolated from a child at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Bharat Biotech International's chairman and managing director, Krishna Ella, vowed at the launch "that governments of lower-income countries will be provided the vaccine at $1 per dose."

A million hospitalizations in India are attributed to the highly infectious rotavirus each year. Thus, the government is making plans to include the vaccine in the nation's national immunization program.

One news account said the Rotavac project involved an investment of nearly $64 million over the past 15 years.

Although Rotavac is to be sold at under $1 per dose in poor countries, nothing was said about its cost in developed countries, if Bharat chooses to market in them. In the United States, however, Merck's ($MRK) RotaTeq is priced at about $75 a dose and GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Rotarix at more than $105, according to the CDC price list.

- here's the Prime Minister Office release and the CDC price list
- and coverage from Livemint, Economic Times and DNA India