Vaccines are one of the paramount public health successes of the 20th century, and this new century has added another milestone to that history: vaccinations that block rotavirus, a major worldwide killer of children under five. Two Philadelphia research institutions are marking the 10th anniversary of a vaccine against rotavirus, a widespread microbe that infects the gastrointestinal system, causing severe, life-threatening diarrhea and vomiting.


The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and The Wistar Institute carried out the early research, beginning in the 1980s, that culminated in the Rotateq® vaccine being approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in 2006. It was added to the list of routine childhood vaccinations that same year. Together with Rotarix®, another rotavirus vaccine approved in 2008, vaccination efforts have profoundly reduced death and suffering from rotavirus infections in the U.S. and worldwide.

“Before rotavirus vaccination, roughly half a million children would go to U.S. emergency rooms every year from this infection,” said Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at CHOP, and one of the three co-inventors of Rotateq®. “Of that number, 75,000 children would be hospitalized with severe dehydration, and 20 to 60 would die. Today, child hospitalizations from rotavirus have dropped by 85 percent in this country.”

LISTEN: Vaccines: An interview with Dr. Paul Offit

Worldwide, progress has occurred, but much remains to be done. “Rotavirus kills almost 2,000 children each day throughout the world, but as the vaccines get into low-income parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, they will save hundreds of children’s lives per day,” said Offit.

Offit, fellow Rotateq® inventor Stanley Plotkin, MD, and Penny M. Heaton, MD, director of Vaccine Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will join leaders from Wistar and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a panel at an October 6 event held at The Wistar Institute: “Celebrating 10 Years of Rotavirus Prevention.*”

“This event is a great opportunity to celebrate the development, implementation and impact of the Rotateq® vaccine, but most importantly to tell the story of the scientists involved, the hurdles and successes of the work and the incredible impact that was made across the globe,” said Dario C. Altieri, MD, president and CEO of The Wistar Institute and director of Wistar’s Cancer Center.


Offit and Plotkin, along with H Fred Clark, DVM, PhD, were the scientific trio who performed early research on rotavirus between 1980 and 1991 at both CHOP and Wistar. Plotkin was a veteran vaccine researcher, having already invented the vaccine for rubella (German measles). Clark, a veterinarian, understood how rotavirus infected all mammals, and isolated a bovine strain of rotavirus that served as a foundation for the new vaccine. And Offit, fresh from his pediatric residency, drew on his training in immunology and virology to help design the optimal combination of components to prevent rotavirus’s worst effects.

For those efforts, the three scientists shared CHOP’s highest honor, its Gold Medal, in 2006. Clark died in 2012. Building on this initial research, Merck & Co., Inc. tested the Rotateq® vaccine between 1990 and 2006 in a series of studies spanning 11 countries and involving 72,000 subjects. “From research to development to implementation, each phase becomes successively more difficult—and expensive,” said Offit.

At the time, Heaton was Merck’s senior director for vaccine clinical research and chaired the development team for the Rotateq® vaccine. She was instrumental in the advancement of Rotateq®, which went on to be licensed in numerous countries across the world and recommended by leading health organizations for all infants worldwide.

Because many developing countries cannot afford to buy and administer vaccines, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Heaton now directs vaccine development, is supporting a global campaign to bring rotavirus vaccination to areas that need it most.

“As the scientific community continues to make important contributions to the fields of virology and vaccinology, we look to the visionaries, whose groundbreaking discoveries have led to the creation of innovative vaccines that can halt the spread of disease and improve public health worldwide,” said Altieri. “The Rotateq® vaccine is one of those major achievements that has a significant and positive global impact, saving countless lives and promoting healthy futures for the citizens of the world.”