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On the Eve of World Rabies Day

Tomorrow, September 28, is World Rabies Day, with the global mission to raise awareness about the impact of human and animal rabies. Though a preventable disease, children, women, and men across the globe still face the risk of rabies infection daily—and once infected rabies is fatal. On the eve of this day of worldwide awareness, education and vaccination are as important as ever in the fight to eradicate rabies, and the Wistar Institute has long been a major figure in this fight.

In the 1970s, then-Wistar director Hilary Koprowski, M.D., Stanley Plotkin, M.D., a research faculty member who is now professor emeritus, and their team developed a rabies vaccine for post-exposure treatment to prevent rabies infections in humans. In the 1980s, Bill Wunner, Ph.D., currently program director for educational outreach, and his team created an oral vaccine to prevent the outbreak of rabies in wildlife. Both of these vaccines were immensely successful and have saved countless lives in the United States and throughout the world. Today, Wistar scientists in the Vaccine Center, led by director Hildegund C.J. Ertle, M.D.,  move forward on the development of a third rabies vaccine for the developing world where more than 60,000 people die from rabies each year.

Check out this Q&A with Wistar Vaccine Center project manager Emily Liu, M.S., MBA.

Tell me more about the third Wistar rabies vaccine to be tested in China. At what stage is the vaccine today? Is the vaccine being manufactured? The company we collaborate with is doing development work to get the vaccine into GMP (good manufacturing process to ensure quality product) and preclinical work needed for clinical trial application.

I read that there are outbreaks reemerging in rural areas and a high number of those affected are from cases involving dog bites. Please clarify. Rabies can be transmitted to humans from various animals. Dogs are always a major source in areas/countries where vaccination of pets is not fully enforced or followed because of the obvious reason that dogs are just very common in people's lives and around where people live.

For example, Taiwan has been rabies-free for more than 50 years, yet new cases are popping up. So it is a question of how did rabies enter Taiwan (since it is an island and not connected to any other land directly). The speculation is that it came from China. Taiwan and China opened to each other slightly more than a decade ago and Taiwan has been frequented by Chinese tourists in recent years.

Is this a preventive vaccine for animals and/or people? This is a preventive vaccine we are going to test in China and can presumably be used for human and dogs. But of course, it remains to be tested, both in human and dogs.

Is this going to be licensed for developing countries as well? Our vaccine is available for any country for licensing if there is any interest.

How many inoculations are required and for how long is the vaccine effective? It depends on how many shots it will take to get the protection we need. At this point, the vaccine is only one shot/inoculation. We will know how long the vaccine is good for once we have results from the clinical trial. From there it can be discussed if a booster shot is needed after the vaccine protection wears out. This vaccine is probably aimed at young children who don't really know to protect themselves from wild animals and don’t usually seek treatment after they are bitten, so it's debatable if older children or adolescents should get vaccinated for a preventive rabies vaccine. Of course, if they are at high risk or people who frequently come in contact with wild animals, like zookeepers—a booster shot should be beneficial.

Photo caption: (L-R) Stanley A. Plotkin, M.D., a Wistar research faculty member who is now professor emeritus, injects the rabies vaccine into the arm of former Wistar Institute director Hilary Koprowski, M.D., as Tadeusz Wiktor, V.M.D., Wistar research faculty member, playfully keeps Koprowski still.