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[BEIJING] International health charity PATH has signed a deal with a Chinese biotechnology company to jointly develop a new oral rotavirus vaccine.

The agreement with Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (WIBP), part of the China National Biotec Group, was signed last week (13 September).

It is the first such agreement reached between a Chinese biotech firm and an international health organisation and is expected to make China's low-cost manufacturing capacity benefit more of the world's poorest people.

Rotaviruses cause severe diarrhoea in children under five and kill about half a million children in developing countries every year, according to the WHO.

There is no medication to cure rotavirus infections and vaccination is the only effective measure against the disease.

Pharmaceutical companies Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have developed two vaccines, called Rotateq and Rotarix, respectively (see Double vaccine victory over rotavirus).

The new rotavirus vaccine to be developed by PATH and WIBP will cover up to six rotavirus strains to offer wider protection. It is expected to reach the market by 2012.

According to the project's chief scientist, Xu Gelin of WIBP, the technology for the new vaccine is licensed from the US National Institutes of Health through PATH, which will also put money towards facilities and equipment.

"The joint research is expected to make the vaccine cheaper and more widely accessible to poor people in the developing countries," Xu told SciDev.Net.

Rotateq is currently priced at US$63 per dose while Rotarix is sold at US$25.

Allison Clifford, a spokesperson for PATH, said that the costs are such that even increased volumes of Rotarix and Rotatez would not yield big enough price reductions to meet the needs of low-income countries.

"PATH is working with manufacturers in China and India to develop two promising candidates into safe, effective and affordable new rotavirus vaccines," Clifford told SciDev.Net.

Xu says the oral vaccine will be simply packaged and easily used, even for remote residents in the poor countries.

She adds if the vaccine development is successful, it will impress international health organisations, creating more opportunities for China to supply cheap, quality drugs to the developing world.

Fang Zhaoyan, a virologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, believes Chinese scientists and vaccine makers have the capacity to lower costs of the rotavirus vaccine.

"But we also need more trials to test whether [this rotavirus] vaccine can offer the wider protection it promises," he told SciDev.Net.

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