Merck-backed lab Hilleman scouts for rotavirus vaccine partners in India

If Hilleman Labs is successful in scouting for a rotavirus vaccine partnership, India might see a new force added to its efforts to fight child and infant mortality caused by the deadly virus.

Hilleman, a Delhi-based vaccine research organization co-owned by U.S. drug maker Merck & Co. and British charitable foundation Wellcome Trust, is in search for pharma partners to manufacture and market a candidate vaccine to fight the life-threatening virus.

Perhaps the most essential feature of Hilleman's oral vaccine--currently in the Phase I/II clinical trial stage--is that it’s heat-stable. If it reaches the market, such an improvement would eliminate the stringent cold-chain storage and transportation conditions usually required of vaccines, thus lowering the cost.

The not-for-profit JV, which focuses on researching low-cost vaccines to be distributed in developing countries, does not have a manufacturing unit of its own, CEO Davinder Gill told India's Livemint, and it doesn’t intend to build one in the immediate future. It's counting on milestone royalties based on research for revenues to continue its work.

Gill said the lab is looking for “affordable and safe” partnerships for manufacturing its vaccines. Besides the rotavirus vaccine, the organization is also working on vaccines against cholera and meningitis.

Rotavirus infections are the leading cause of severe diarrhea among children 5 years old and younger. About 334,000 annual deaths among children in India are attributable to diarrheal diseases. Of those, about a third is estimated to be caused by rotavirus, according to a study posted by the World Health Organization in 2012.

Under the current Modi administration, India has been stepping up its efforts to increase vaccine delivery through its Universal Immunization Programme in an attempt to reduce child mortality dramatically. The country’s Health Ministry in March launched its first, indigenous rotavirus vaccine, Rotavac, manufactured by Bharat Biotech. That vaccine, though a cheap one--about $3 per child compared with around $45 for vaccines from international pharmaceutical companies--has to be stored at -20°C (-4 °F) till the expiry date.

Besides Bharat, other vaccine manufacturing companies in India include Sanofi-owned Shantha, GlaxoSmithKline, among others.

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