Nearly every child in the world has been infected with rotavirus at least once by the age of five. But kids in poor countries get the worst of it. Rotavirus mortality is low in the developed world, but in low-income countries it’s a killer, accounting for 85 percent of the estimated 180,000 to 400,000 annual deaths caused by the pathogen.
The disparity exists for at least two reasons.
First, widespread malnutrition results in a different epidemiology. For example, 70 percent of rotavirus hospitalizations in India happen the first year of life, compared with 40 percent in high- and middle-income countries.
Second, price. Vaccination is second only to gaining access to potable water as a low-cost, high-payoff strategy for ensuring children’s health. But many vaccines are far too pricey for families living on incomes in the neighborhood of $1,500 per year. As a result, most childhood deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases happen in low-income countries. India has the most rotavirus deaths in the world, estimated at about 75,000-122,000 per year (close to a quarter of the worldwide total.)
So it’s great news that a new rotavirus vaccine developed by Indians for Indians has leaped the safety and efficacy thresholds of a late-stage clinical trial, in which more than 6,500 Indian infants were inoculated, and will likely become available in that country for less than a dollar a dose. (The full immunization procedure requires three separate doses.)
The results appear in a study just published in The Lancet and co-authored by a team including veteran rotavirus-vaccine developer Harry Greenberg, MD. An accompanying perspective piece co-written by Greenberg, who also directs the Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Research and Education, states:
[P]roof of the efficacy of the… vaccine against a disease that affects almost every child in India, leads to millions of clinic visits and hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions, and kills roughly one child in every 175-200 born in India before their fifth birthday is cause for celebration.
The new vaccine was the first to be fully tested for efficacy in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in India. Interestingly, its development began with the discovery, by an Indian pediatrician, that newborns were getting rotavirus infections in the hospital but not getting sick. The strain they were infected with turned out to be an attenuated mutant virus that turns on the body’s immune response without causing symptoms: in short, the ideal vaccine candidate.
Ultimately spearheaded by a young Indian biotechnology company, Bharat Biotech, the effort to capitalize on this promising episode of serendipity drew financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and technical assistance from the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Stanford, among others. This international team of collaborators then spent more than 15 years turning the promise into a reality.