Behind the Scenes on a New Vaccines Push in India

This morning in London, Merck and the Wellcome Trust unveiled an unusual joint vaccine development effort, a $145 million non-profit research institute to be formed in India by the end of next year. ScienceInsider has some additional info on the project that didn’t make our story in this week’s print issue, appearing tonight. For one, the project resulted from a hallway conversation at a health meeting 2 years ago.

When asked who approached whom about forming the new institute, Mark Feinberg, the vice president for medical affairs and health policy at Merck, gracefully ducked the question. Feinberg says that he and Bill Castell, chairman of the Wellcome Trust, began talking at the 2007 Pacific Health Summit and realized their organizations had complimentary interests. Merck, acknowledges Feinberg, struggles to balance its profit-driven financial responsibility to shareholders with the company’s desire to bring affordable vaccines to low-income countries. As for the Wellcome Trust, it’s an unabashed supporter of basic science, usually through research grants or infrastructure support to academic scientists, but the charity wanted to better translate discoveries into health benefits to the developing world.

From that chat has arisen plans for the MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories—named after a vaccine scientist who worked at Merck—a non-profit research institute that it will act like a nimble biotech company with “dynamic decision-making” in the words of Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at the Wellcome Trust. Bianco notes that the placement of the institute in India brings several benefits, including a rich scientific base, and access to Indian firms with expertise in making affordable drugs and vaccines and to a large population of lower-income people who could test new vaccines and would be among the immediate beneficiaries of any successes.

Altaf Lal, who spent 2 decades working on vaccines at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is now the health attaché at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, has been tabbed as CEO of the new center, which is expected to employ some 60 people. In addition to the center having access to Merck’s experts, many at the institute will themselves have significant product development experience, specifically in terms of vaccines (Does Merck hope Hilleman Labs will recruit good people from competing vaccine firms? Feinberg just chuckled at that question). The core purposes of the center are to take promising vaccine ideas to the stage where they can be tested in people and to optimize or adapt current vaccines so that they are more affordable or usable in lower-income countries. A meeting earlier this year in Kenya saw those forming the institute and other public health experts discussing what specific projects should be tackled. As the print story notes, one likely goal is a vaccine for group A steptococcus. Feinberg and Bianco also expressed the desire to develop heat-stable versions of vaccines that employ live, attenuated viruses and thus need refrigeration. Eliminating this “cold chain” would reduce costs and make vaccines much more easily distributed in tropical countries.

Merck and the Wellcome Trust call the new center a “first of its kind” and if one looks at the specifics of this union between a major pharmaceutical company and major philanthropy, that’s true, agrees Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Still, he and other public health experts note that there are many other private-public global health partnerships out there. Novartis has also set up a non-profit vaccine research institute, although it’s still part of the drug company. In contrast, Hilleman Laboratories will be a private entity, able to work with any other group, even other companies. The six-member board of directors, however, will comprise three people from Merck and three from the Wellcome Trust, so both partners will continue to guide the future of the center. But, says Fauci, Merck will not be setting prices on any vaccines developed at the Indian center. Overall, he says, the 7 year funding commitment by Merck and the Wellcome Trust is a “robust jump-start” to a center that will address a known gap in translational medicine. “I like the concept,” says Fauci.