UPDATE 1-Sanofi launches hunt for Zika vaccine as disease fears grow
(Adds context, other companies in Zika vaccine race)
By Dominique Vidalon and Ben Hirschler
PARIS/LONDON Feb 2 (Reuters) - Sanofi has launched a project to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus in the most decisive commitment yet by a major vaccine producer to fight the disease linked to multiple birth defects in Brazil.
The French drugmaker said on Tuesday its Sanofi Pasteur vaccines division would use its expertise in developing vaccines for similar viruses such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and, most recently, dengue.
The move comes a day after the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus to be an international public health emergency due to its link to underdeveloped brains in some babies.
Such emergency declarations are a way for the WHO to mobilise resources and coordinate action to fight a disease, and Director-General Margaret Chan said on Monday that one of the priorities was to develop a vaccine as fast as possible.
"Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine given the disease's rapid spread and possible medical complications," said Nicholas Jackson, research head of Sanofi Pasteur, who is leading the new Zika vaccine project.
Sanofi believes its established research and industrial infrastructure for its newly licensed dengue vaccine can be rapidly leveraged to help speed identification of a Zika vaccine candidate.
So far, the only groups with firm plans to develop a Zika vaccine are small biotech companies and academic institutions, although GlaxoSmithKline has said it is concluding feasibility studies to evaluate if its vaccine technology is suitable. Continued...