GSK jumps into Zika vax hunt on heels of Sanofi's deal

After months of work under the radar, GlaxoSmithKline committed to entering the Zika R&D field, announcing on Thursday that it’s pairing with the National Institutes of Health in a project based at its new vaccine research hub in Rockville, MD.

With the news, GSK joins Sanofi as one of the largest drugmakers involved in the global Zika R&D effort. More than a dozen other companies and organizations are also racing to create an effective vaccine against the virus, which has been linked to thousands of microcephaly cases in Latin America and shows signs of spreading to the United States.

Over the past few months, GSK has run feasibility studies and now says it’s ready to move forward with technology called self-amplifying mRNA, dubbed SAM. The London pharma stressed that it’s still early days for the tech, saying vaccine R&D usually takes more than a decade.

“We will partner with research groups at the NIH to explore this concept in laboratory-based studies and, if this goes well, to accelerate our ability to transition this technology to a stage where a clinical proof of concept can be achieved,” GSK’s statement said.

As Zika increasingly threatens areas in the U.S., the federal government is also scaling up its response. Sanofi this week announced a partnership with the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to advance an inactivated Zika virus vaccine candidate. In that collaboration, Sanofi is preparing for Phase II trials, while the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases sponsors a Phase I study. Sanofi is also working on its own candidate separately, hoping to leverage decades of experience in dengue vaccine research.

Political pressure is high as well, with President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to pass a bill funding the U.S. Zika response. He touted “a whole bunch of promising pathways” that could lead to a vaccine and urged lawmakers to push the funding forward before their summer break begins July 15.

GSK’s announcement follows a May report that said many Big Pharma companies were cautious about entering Zika vaccine R&D because populations might develop a natural immunity to the virus, slowing its spread and shrinking the market for a potential vaccine.

The pharma's Zika effort will be based at GSK’s new Rockville, MD, vaccines R&D hub, which GSK has touted as an ideal location for collaborations with vaccines experts and public health officials.

- here's the release

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