Companies announce new Zika vaccine initiatives

Two vaccine makers, Sanofi Pasteur and NewLink Genetics, today announced efforts to develop vaccines against Zika virus infection that will springboard off existing technologies.

In related news, Honduras yesterday declared a national emergency over an expanding Zika virus infection outbreak, while Thailand confirmed its first locally acquired case.

Building on flavivirus vaccine experience

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi, based in Lyon, France, already has licensed vaccines for dengue, yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis, which, like Zika virus (ZIKV) infection, are mosquito-borne diseases caused by flaviviruses, the company said in a news release.

Sanofi officials emphasized the company's dengue vaccine, which was approved for use in Mexico and Brazil in December. "Sanofi Pasteur's expertise and established R&D and industrial infrastructure for the newly licensed vaccine for dengue, Dengvaxia, can be rapidly leveraged to help understand the spread of ZIKV and potentially speed identification of a vaccine candidate for further clinical development," the company said in the release.

"Our invaluable collaborations with scientific and public health experts, both globally and in the regions affected by the outbreaks of ZIKV, together with the mobilization of our best experts will expedite efforts to research and develop a vaccine for this disease," said John Shiver, PhD, global research and development director of Sanofi Pasteur.

Several groups, mostly small biotech companies, have announced plans to develop a vaccine. The closest prospect thus far could be from a consortium that includes Inovio Pharmaceuticals of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., which hopes to have a candidate ready by year's end, Reuters reported today.

Yesterday, however, Tony Fauci, MD, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said researchers have two key prospects that won't be available for several years. And STAT News reported late last week that some experts are predicting it will take from 5 to 15 years for a vaccine to reach people's arms after regulatory approval.

Drug-development initiative

Meanwhile, Ames, Iowa–based NewLink Genetics Corporation, which helped develop the leading Ebola vaccine candidate, said it is using experience gained with other flaviviruses to move rapidly on a Zika vaccine candidate, the company said in a press release.

"NewLink Genetics is committed to developing a vaccine solution to the tragedy of the Zika virus disease," said Thomas P. Monath, MD, CEO and chief scientific officer of NewLink's Infectious Disease Division. "Our R&D group has decades of experience in developing successful vaccines against closely-related flaviviruses, which we will leverage to accelerate our Zika vaccine program."

"Our team gained considerable experience during the Ebola crisis collaborating with national and international partners in a rapidly evolving public health environment," said Charles J. Link, MD, CEO and chief scientific officer of NewLink Genetics.

Latest in Honduras, Thailand

In related news, Honduras has declared a state of national emergency after recording 3,649 suspected Zika cases in less than 3 months, the New York Times reported yesterday.

Honduran Health Minister Yolani Batres is urging people to eliminate breeding grounds for the mosquito Aedes aegypti, the leading species that spreads Zika virus. The government has activated its risk management system to coordinate preventive measures, the story said.

And Thailand officials said today that a man has contracted the virus without traveling abroad, its first local case. The man, 22, is thought to have caught the same strain as that causing thousands of cases in South and Central America, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

The virus was confirmed by blood tests, said Air Vice-Marshall Santi Srisermpoke, director of Bangkok's Bhumibol Adulyadej Hospital. The man had a fever, rash, and eye redness.

"It's not a new disease in Thailand ... we had the first confirmed case in 2012. Since then we have an average of not more than five cases yearly," said Amnuay Gajeena, MD, director-general of the Disease Control Department of Thailand's Public Health Ministry. He was referring to imported, not locally acquired cases.

"There is no need to panic ... we have never had an epidemic of the Zika virus in Thailand all of the cases were one-offs."

In January 2014, a Eurosurveillance report detailed a Zika case in a German traveler who likely contracted the disease in Thailand.

See also:

Feb 2 Sanofi Pasteur news release

Feb 2 Reuters report

Jan 29 STAT News story

Feb 2 NewLink press release

Feb 1 New York Times article

Feb 2 AFP story

Jan 30, 2014, Eurosurveillance report

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