(Reuters) - Sanofi has struck a collaboration deal with a leading Brazilian research institute to speed development of a Zika vaccine, consolidating the French drugmaker’s position in the race to defeat the mosquito-borne virus.
The deal with the Fiocruz public health center follows a tie-up in July between Sanofi and a U.S. Army research institute, which gave the drugmaker access to one of the furthest advanced vaccines in development.
Sanofi said on Thursday that all three research organizations would now work together to “increase the likelihood of successfully developing and licensing a safe and effective Zika vaccine as quickly as possible”.
The French company has taken pole position among major drugmakers in Zika vaccine research, reflecting its expertise in developing shots against other so-called flaviviruses, such as yellow fever, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.
In February, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency because of Zika’s apparent link to microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small heads and serious developmental problems. That has galvanized efforts to speed up vaccine development.
If all goes well, some experts believe a vaccine could come to market in as little as two years.
“It only makes sense for the pursuit of public health that we combine our expertise and resources on Zika with Fiocruz, which is ideally based in Brazil where the heart of the current Zika experience lies,” said John Shiver, senior vice president for research at Sanofi’s vaccines unit.
Fiocruz scientists are expected to help in areas such as pre-clinical and clinical studies, as well as vaccine process development and other technical matters.
Even if the current outbreaks in Latin America and the Caribbean burn out by the time a vaccine is ready for deployment, people living in those regions are expected to want protection against a return of Zika.
Tens of millions of travelers from the United States and other wealthy nations could also be in line to get vaccines before visiting areas at risk.
Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical announced last month it was also joining the effort to develop a Zika vaccine, after receiving funding from BARDA, a U.S. government agency that is also backing Sanofi’s efforts.
In addition, several smaller biotech companies are working in the area, including U.S.-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which has started human testing of a vaccine candidate in Puerto Rico.
Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Susan Fenton and Alexander Smith