A vaccine developed by Serum Institute of India Ltd., led by billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, was better at protecting people from a strain of meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa than older products from companies including GSK.
About 600 children under two years old were given the vaccines and their immunity levels tested four weeks and 10 months after the inoculation. More than 96 percent of those who received Serum’s MenAfriVac had high levels of antibodies in their blood after four weeks, compared with 64 percent in the group that got Glaxo’s Mencevax Acwy, scientists wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The vaccine could prevent about 150,000 deaths by 2020. Since 1988, more than a million people in Africa have been infected by the disease, which causes mental retardation and permanent deafness and can be fatal within hours if untreated, according to the World Health Organization.
Poonawalla, who founded Serum in 1966, had $2 billion in assets, making him India’s 31st richest person, Forbes magazine said last year. He also hold shares in New Delhi-based Panacea Biotec Ltd., the world’s biggest maker of polio vaccines.
In 2010, Burkina Faso became the first nation to offer the vaccine, which costs 50 cents a dose and was developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to all citizens below 30. There have been four confirmed cases this year, the lowest-ever incidence in the nation’s history. Last year, there were 66 confirmed cases of meningitis caused by the A strain, which is responsible for almost 85 percent of cases in Africa.
The first study referred to in the paper took place between 2006 and 2007, and data from toddlers in Mali and Gambia was examined. Most participants received a primary shot and a booster dose 10 months later. Blood tests taken before and after inoculations assessed the concentration of antibodies that protect against disease-causing germs.
The second study was of 900 people from two to 29 years of age and they received a single dose. Antibody levels were tested four weeks later.
Older vaccines including Mencevax and Sanofi’s Menomune belong to a category of inoculants called polysaccharide vaccines, which contain a portion of the outer shell of the disease-causing bacterium. Immunity is developed when the body produces antibodies after being exposed to a small chunk of the pathogen’s external shell, which is made of sugars that are also known as polysaccharides.
Mencevax and Menomune offer protection from all four strains of the bacteria, A, C, Y and W-135, and are consequently more expensive. Serum’s product is a so-called conjugate, in which the polysaccharide shell is combined with a protein carrier, a process that confers immunity from the disease for up to 20 years, but it only protects against the most prevalent A strain.
About 20 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have received the Serum vaccine to date. Another 45 million people from Mali, Niger and three other countries will be inoculated by December.