Success of Chinese biotech partnership raises hopes for prevention of overlooked diseases.
Batches of the world’s first vaccine against the hepatitis E virus
began rolling out of a Chinese factory last week, promising to stem a
disease that every year infects about 20 million people and claims
70,000 lives. The vaccine is being hailed as a victory for an unusual
public–private partnership that could set a precedent in China’s
burgeoning biotechnology sector, and help to deliver other vaccines for
diseases overlooked in the West.
waterborne hepatitis E virus mostly occurs in developing countries that
have poor sanitation, and it is particularly prevalent in east and
south Asia. Although most cases cause only mild illness, it can lead to
acute liver failure — the mortality rate reaches 4% in some regions and
soars to 20% in women who are in the later stages of pregnancy. A severe
outbreak of hepatitis E in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in
northwest China1, for example, caused almost 120,000 infections and more than 700 deaths between 1986 and 1988 (see ‘Hidden epidemics’). There is no treatment, and improved sanitation has so far been the most effective way to stem the disease.