03.11.16 By Sanofi Le Hub
The Zika virus is emerging as one of the most serious health challenges facing the world today given its possible link to birth defects in infected pregnant women as well as a serious neurological disorder in adults. In February, about 33 countries had reported new Zika cases from the previous year alone.
This situation led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare on February 1, 2016 that the Zika outbreak was a worldwide public health emergency and to launch a Global Emergency Response Plan to help fight the spread of the virus. Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of the Sanofi group, responded quickly to the WHO’s call and announced the establishment of a dedicated Zika vaccine development program on the following day.
“Our hope is that [our] vaccine development legacy could provide us with a strong advantage in accelerating the important hunt for a desperately-needed vaccine against Zika,” Nick Jackson, Sanofi’s Research Director and head of the Zika Vaccine Project, told CNN in a recent interview.
The Zika virus belongs to the same Flavivirus family as other mosquito-borne diseases, such as Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever, and dengue. More importantly, it is transmitted by the same mosquito vector that bites during the day and shares the same clinical presentation as dengue, although it has historically been considered much less severe.
Zika is not new – there have been documented cases of the virus since 2007 – but what is new is a suspected link between the virus and an increase in the number of reported cases of microcephaly, a rare and severe birth defect that leads to abnormally small heads in newborns and can be associated with serious brain damage and impairment. In addition, Zika has also been potentially linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious neurological disease that affects the immune system.
The virus is spreading at epidemic speed and among the 33 countries that have reported new Zika cases in the past year, six (Brazil, French Polynesia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia, and Suriname) have also reported an increase in microcephaly and/or Guillain-Barré syndrome cases during the same time frame.
It is believed Zika was introduced to Brazil during the 2014 football World Cup. With the 2016 Olympic Games scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro this August, there are concerns that visitors to Brazil could help spread Zika to additional countries, taking the epidemic to a new level.
“We need to know why [Zika] is there. Where is it going? And is it actually causing these problems? We need to understand the basic biology. That’s why collaboration will be so important at the international and regional level” Nick Jackson told STAT, a digital newsroom covering life sciences.
In Brazil alone, up to 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika since May last year and 3,700 cases of microcephaly were reported in the country during this same time period which is a twentyfold increase from previous years.
Although the exact risks of Zika still remain unclear the strong association between the Zika epidemic and the growing cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome has led the WHO to ensure increase in international collaboration to tackle the Zika threat.
With no treatments or vaccines currently available and concerns over the possible transmission of Zika via saliva, urine or semen, the WHO convened an urgent meeting in early February to bring attention to the epidemic.
It subsequently announced a $56 million strategy to boost Zika research and to fast-track a vaccine to prevent its spread. It also stressed the urgent need for further research into the possible links between Zika and microcephaly, as well as Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Being the first major pharmaceutical company to announce the launch of a Zika vaccine program, Sanofi Pasteur took a leading position in the hunt for a vaccine to stop further spread of this disease. The company is already collaborating with scientists and clinicians around the world to help determine the extent of the virus, to learn more about its biology, and to better understand the relationship between Zika, microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“We have a strong sense of urgency…We need to work with regulatory agencies around the world to try to find innovative ways to accelerate (development). If we take the familiar textbook approach to vaccine development, it would potentially slow us down.” said Nick Jackson to STAT.
The company has already successfully developed vaccines for other Flaviviruses, including yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever – dengue is, in fact, the closest known virus to Zika. Sanofi Pasteur will build on this expertise, its broad international scientific and public health collaborations, and its recent success in developing the first dengue vaccine to expedite the search for a candidate vaccine. If all goes well, the company could “cut years off the typical amount of time it takes to develop a vaccine”.
Sanofi Pasteur is playing a critical role in global efforts to prevent the spread of Zika and to help eradicate this new public health threat.
Nicholas Jackson, who heads up the effort, said he had already assembled a team of more than 80 in-house experts who would start preclinical tests of a potential vaccine in animals this spring.
“Preclinical animal studies will start imminently and we will go through the various stages of research and development that will allow us to potentially enter the clinic next year.” said Jackson to Reuters.
With an existing basic “backbone” vaccine already used in millions of patients and a virus that seems well-conserved at the genetic level, hopes are high that the new vaccines could be available to populations at risks faster than ever.
Sanofi Pasteur announced, July 6, 2016, a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) on the co-development of a Zika vaccine candidate.
“This exciting collaboration with the WRAIR creates the opportunity to rapidly move forward,” said David Loew, Executive Vice President, Head of Sanofi Pasteur.
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