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Crisis and Profit Potential Spur Zika Vaccine Race

Crisis and Profit Potential Spur Zika Vaccine Race
The potential for big profit is driving the race to find protection against the Zika virus.
Interest of big drugmakers, including Sanofi SA, GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Takeda Pharmaceuticals have been attracted by the prospect of a blockbuster vaccine against a mosquito-borne virus which has accelerated the pace of development.
Since Zika can cause devastating birth defects, pharmaceutical executives and disease,  experts said that demand for a vaccine is expected to be strong even though Zika infections are mild or asymptomatic in most people.
The virus is the only mosquito-borne disease also spread through sex and has moved rapidly across the Americas and hence the most lucrative market is seen in travelers seeking inoculation against it.
"It scares people. Europeans and Americans can pay a pretty high price for these kinds of vaccines," said Scott Weaver, a virologist with the University of Texas and chairman of the Zika task force for the Global Virus Network.
In as soon as two years, Zika could have a vaccine in the market. People living in Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to want protection against a return of Zika even if the current outbreaks in those regions burn out by that time.
It is expected that people on business trips with corporate-sponsored health coverage would be among those tens of millions of travelers from United States and other wealthy nations who would want to get vaccines before visiting areas where Zika is circulating.
"If you consider just a portion of the U.S. traveler population, we can conservatively envision a Zika market opportunity exceeding $1 billion" a year, said Joseph Kim, chief executive of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a Pennsylvania company. With respect to human testing of a vaccine candidate, this company is farthest along in the development path underway in hard hit Puerto Rico.
To guard against birth defects in future pregnancies, the vaccine is expected to become standard care for girls before puberty, drugmakers and disease experts also envision. Boys also could be candidates to protect eventual sexual partners.
"Hopefully a vaccine can be developed that's sold for a low cost in endemic areas," Weaver said.
It is very uncommon to generate blockbuster sales for vaccines against mosquito-borne viruses. The biggest in the market by far is Sanofi's dengue vaccine, approved in nine countries, is generating near-blockbuster expectations. According to Thomson Reuters data, by 2020, analysts forecast annual sales for Dengvaxia reaching about $900 million.
A global public health emergency because of Zika's apparent link to microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small heads and serious developmental problems, was declared by the World Health Organization in February.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has its own pilot plant that can make enough for early clinical testing, which began with its first candidate in August but is negotiating with companies to produce Zika vaccines.
"We're not dependent on a company until you prove it works and then you need somebody to manufacture millions of doses," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Manon Cox,Chief Executive of Inovio, whose DNA vaccine is injected along with a brief low voltage electronic pulse that induces cell membranes to open, said that as high costs as $1 billion could be incurred in developing and securing approval for a vaccine. Without government funding, "that product has got to have a market of a few billion dollars," she said.
Using the same process as its already approved Japanese encephalitis vaccine, another French vaccine maker, Valneva SE, generated an inactivated Zika vaccine candidate.
A new type of vaccine technology is being worked on by GSK along with NIAID. Japan's Takeda plans to begin human testing in the second half of 2017 for its vaccine developed using killed Zika virus.
"If there is a huge need," said Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda's global vaccine unit, "there will be a business model that works."

Christopher J. Mitchell

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