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Celebrating 15 Years of Protecting Children’s Health Worldwide

May 20, 2021

Milestone discoveries made at The Wistar Institute have led to the development of vaccines that protect children and adults from widespread and life-threatening diseases and have saved countless lives in the United States and around the world. 

2021 marks the 15th anniversary of the approval and commercialization of a rotavirus vaccine based on research conducted at Wistar and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and developed by Merck & Co., Inc.

This tremendous achievement would not have been realized without the collaboration among an academic research institute, a research hospital and a pharmaceutical partner taking this lifesaving solution from the discovery phase and all the way through to commercialization.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe gastroenteritis in young children globally. It causes diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration and death if left untreated. 

Before a vaccine, rotavirus caused 200,000 emergency room visits and 60 deaths in children under five years of age every year in the U.S1

Dr. Stanley Plotkin, a veteran Wistar vaccine researcher who created important vaccines including one against rubella and now professor emeritus at Wistar and the University of Pennsylvania; the late Dr. H. Fred Clark, veterinarian and research professor at Wistar, CHOP and University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at CHOP, began their research on rotavirus, which lasted for just more than a decade starting in 1980.

In 1981, Clark isolated the Wistar Calf-3 or WC3 strain of rotavirus from a calf. From then until 1991, the three researchers worked together to create a prototype vaccine. Building on their research, Merck & Co., Inc. tested the vaccine between 1990 and 2006 in a series of clinical trials that was a huge undertaking spanning 11 countries and involving 72,000 subjects. In 2006, the vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration with the name RotaTeq®

Shortly after, the vaccine was included in the list of routine childhood vaccinations in the Americas and Europe.

Since then, other rotavirus vaccines have been approved and all the available vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe gastrointestinal disease from rotavirus. In 2009, the World Health Organization recommended that all countries include a rotavirus vaccine in their infant immunization programs. More than 100 countries have done so to date.

Vaccination has significantly reduced death and illness from rotavirus infections in the U.S. and worldwide. The public health impact of rotavirus vaccination has been profound: Countries using rotavirus vaccines have seen a 40 percent decrease in hospital admissions among children younger than 5 years2 and annual deaths caused by rotavirus diarrhea have decreased by more than 30 percent globally3. In the U.S., child hospitalizations from rotavirus have dropped by 85 percent4.

Today, rotavirus still kills more than 500,000 children under age five every year globally5, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in low-income countries, where intravenous rehydration is often unavailable.

Organizations like Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, provide support to those countries to introduce rotavirus vaccination. Thanks to this effort, full vaccine coverage across Gavi-supported countries increased by 11 percent between 2017 and 2018, to reach 39 percent6

Rotavirus vaccination is also cost-effective: It has been estimated that without vaccination, $987 million would have been spent on treatment costs in 20107.

Importantly, rotavirus vaccination helps avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics that are often erroneously prescribed for this viral disease, contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

Wistar celebrates the 15-year milestone of this vaccine and is proud of its contribution to protecting babies and young children around the world from rotavirus disease.

1Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
2Global impact of rotavirus vaccine introduction on rotavirus hospitalisations among children under 5 years of age, 2008–16: findings from the Global Rotavirus Surveillance Network, The Lancet Global Health, 2019
3Global impact of rotavirus vaccination on diarrhea hospitalizations and deaths among children <5 years old: 2006–2019, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2020
4Source: CDC
5Estimates of global, regional, and national morbidity, mortality, and aetiologies of diarrhoeal diseases: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2017
6Source: GAVI, The Vaccine Alliance
7Epidemiological and economic impact of monovalent and pentavalent rotavirus vaccines in low and middle income countries: a cost-effectiveness modeling analysis. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 2015.