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Zika vaccine work begins as World Health Organisation declares global emergency

Published 02/02/2016

A woman, who is eight months pregnant, rests at a potential mosquito breeding site inside her home. (AP)
A woman, who is eight months pregnant, rests at a potential mosquito breeding site inside her home. (AP)

Drugs manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur is launching an effort to research and develop a vaccine to prevent the Zika virus, after the World Health Organisation declared a global emergency over its explosive spread.

There is no treatment or vaccine for the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to birth defects and is in the same family of viruses as dengue. Sanofi made the first licensed dengue vaccine shot, licensed last year in Brazil after years of scientific struggle to develop one.

France-based Sanofi said its experience with the dengue vaccine "can be rapidly leveraged to help understand the spread" of Zika and "potentially speed identification of a vaccine candidate for further clinical development".

Sanofi said it is responding to a global call for help against the virus but did not indicate when researchers might have an experimental vaccine to test. Vaccine development typically takes years.

The US government announced last week that it is beginning research into a possible vaccine. Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said there are vaccines in various stages of development for other viruses in the same family - dengue, West Nile and chikungunya - that offer a pattern for creating something similar against Zika.

The Zika virus was long thought to be relatively benign, with generally milder symptoms than dengue. But amid a large recent Zika outbreak in Brazil, researchers began reporting an increase in a rare birth defect named microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads.

The WHO has called it an "extraordinary event" that poses a public health threat to other parts of the world, declaring a global health emergency despite a lack of definitive evidence proving the virus is causing the birth defects.

Dr Nicholas Jackson, head of global research for Sanofi, said the company wants to "greatly accelerate" the hunt for a vaccine but that Brazilian predictions of a version within three to five years sound "ambitious".

"It's very difficult to predict a reliable timeline ... given that we're learning so much about the disease and what we need to do," he told The Associated Press.

Sanofi Pasteur said it is in informal discussions with the WHO and Brazilian authorities. A spokesman said: "Collaboration is absolutely essential to understand this frightening disease."

Sanofi plans to "rush through" a series of vaccine candidates, including that used for dengue, Dr Jackson said. He said he hopes that the company learned enough during its 20-year, 1 billion US dollar search for a dengue vaccine to rule out some ideas that turned out to be ineffective.

Clinical trials for the Zika vaccine, however, would be particularly difficult as they might involve testing in women of child-bearing age and pregnant women, groups that scientists have traditionally been reluctant to put at risk.

With France's medical community reeling after a man died during clinical trials of a painkiller last month, Dr Jackson insisted that "we would never compromise safety" amid the speeded-up effort for a vaccine.

He said he hopes an eventual vaccine would be available to all populations, but especially to adolescent girls before they begin sexual activity, because of concerns about possible birth defects. He said it was too early to say whether it would be used to vaccinate pregnant women.

Chile reported its first case of a person infected with the Zika virus.

The Chilean Infectology Society confirmed the case Tuesday without providing any details about the patient. It only said that the virus had been transmitted while the person was abroad and that it was first recorded several weeks ago.

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