WASHINGTON, D.C.--An international effort to strengthen vaccine research and usage in East Asia took an important step forward with the signing here today of an agreement between the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) and its host country, South Korea. The agreement backs up Korea's pledge of financial support for research despite the current economic crisis.
The nonprofit IVI grew out of the Children's Vaccine Initiative, a 1992 effort by several international organizations to stem the scourge of childhood diseases worldwide. Korea has already pledged $50 million to build and equip a modern facility to be completed next year on the campus of Seoul National University, as well as covering 30% of the institute's estimated annual budget of $15 million (Science, 6 December 1996, p. 1607 ).
But researchers aren't waiting for their new facility before getting down to work. This year they expect to begin a study of bacterial meningitis in Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China using a vaccine that has been remarkably successful in knocking out the illness's leading cause, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib); principal investigators from each country will meet this spring to map out a strategy.
One goal of the study is to demonstrate the prevalence of H. influenzae in the region, explains Joel Ward, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, and scientific adviser to IVI. "There's never been good epidemiological studies of the disease in East Asia," says Ward. "We want to prove that it exists and then use the available vaccines to prevent it." The $300,000 in start-up costs comes from the five major commercial producers of Hib vaccine. John LaMontagne of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases applauds the venture: "It's an important undertaking, and they should be complimented for taking it on." Researchers are weighing a similar attack on diarrhea from rotaviruses, which each year kills nearly 1 million children in developing countries.
In the meantime, IVI officials commend the Korean government for sticking by its earlier commitments in the face of continued economic uncertainty. "We are tremendously grateful to the Korean government for its continued support," says Barry Bloom, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and chair of the institute's board. "The institute hopes to capitalize on the biotechnology revolution and become a leader in developing vaccines for poor countries."