Drugmakers respond to call for Zika vaccine

zika mosquito

The Aedes mosquito, which infects people with the Zika virus, is a common mosquito species found all over the world, and therefore has raised concerns of the virus spreading rapidly. Photo credit: James Gathany

In response to governments and global health organizations calling for a Zika vaccine, pharma companies are assessing their capabilities to decide whether to jump onboard.

So far, Sanofi Pasteur, the drugmaker's vaccines arm, is the only global pharma company to confirm it launched a research and development vaccine program for Zika. The French manufacturer plans to apply its expertise in dengue, which is part of the same virus family as Zika, in the newly launched program, according to Nicholas Jackson, Sanofi Pasteur's global head of research.

“We've got a good jump start as we've licensed our dengue vaccine in three countries already," including Brazil, the Philippines, and Mexico, said Jackson, who also led the company's dengue vaccine program. “We have experts that understand the virus, we have technologies in our lab that we can rapidly use and a global infrastructure that can move forward clinically.”

See also: Sanofi R&D lead takes aim at global drug regulations

Sanofi Pasteur is in several ongoing discussions for new collaborations with universities and institutions. “Without regional and international collaboration, we will not be able to move as quickly as we'd like,” said Jackson.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which is the same type of mosquito that carries dengue virus. Outbreaks have been recorded in more than 30 countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia Pacific. The virus is spread to people through mosquito bites, blood transfusion and sexual contact. Pregnant women are at highest risk of the virus, which is linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development among newborns. Researchers are also investigating a possible link to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that causes temporary paralysis.

Babies with microcephaly often experience challenges in brain development as they grow older. Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“It has been more than 50 years since a viral cause of a significant birth abnormality has been identified,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a press telebriefing. “We're learning more about it every day. We wish we knew more.”

Other companies including Takeda, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have said they are evaluating whether to join the race to develop a vaccine. Takeda, which is currently developing two vaccines for dengue and norovirus, is in discussions with various groups and organizations to see if collaborations are possible. The company said it plans to make a decision within a couple of months.

“We're very early in understanding the Zika virus,” said Dr. John Boslego, SVP and head of development for Takeda's global vaccine business unit. “Our participation in Zika would require an extensive partnership. The first step is getting access to the virus and how to characterize it.”

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Since the World Health Organization on February 1 declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency, governments and global health bodies have vocalized the need to accelerate development of a vaccine.

On February 8, President Obama submitted a request to Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding for mosquito control programs, research initiatives and assistance to countries facing the epidemic.

Three US senators—Al Franken (D-Minn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—also introduced bipartisan legislation to add Zika to the Priority Review voucher program, which encourages and accelerates vaccine development for neglected tropical diseases by providing a second priority voucher to manufacturers that develop vaccines to treat these diseases. The second voucher can be used for any drug or sold to another drugmaker.

"The most effective way to stop the spread of this virus is to find a cure,” Nelson said in a news release. "This bill gives researchers an incentive to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible."

In addition, at least 30 health organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Médecins Sans Frontières, the National Institutes of Health and the New England Journal of Medicine have signed a joint declaration to openly share data about Zika.