Sanofi digs into details on hastened Zika effort

Just last month, Sanofi ($SNY) became the first Big Pharma player to enter the Zika vaccine R&D space as its peers calculated their responses and weighed their options. Now, the French pharma is taking it a step further, outlining its plans to devote dozens of scientists to the field in a move aimed at expediting its vaccine development.

Sanofi Pasteur's Nicholas Jackson

Sanofi, which spent two decades developing the world's first dengue fever vaccine, is committing 80 experts to Zika research and is starting preclinical testing this spring, program head Nicholas Jackson told Reuters. The pharma is hoping it can apply its dengue knowledge to Zika to knock years off of the typical vaccine development process. With the cooperation of regulators, the company could enter human trials next year, Jackson told the news service.

The "backbone" of the vaccine Sanofi intends to use has been used safely in millions of patients to date, Jackson explained to Reuters, providing added confidence as the drugmaker quickly moves through development. Sanofi's new dengue vaccine production facility in France, which has yet to be fully scaled up, could prove useful in making a potential Zika shot, the news service noted.

As of last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) tallied 15 companies and organizations working in the Zika vaccine R&D space. Since then, several other companies and agencies have either committed to research or said they're considering entering the field. The agency has said India's Bharat Biotech and the U.S. National Institutes of Health are the furthest along in the race, while Plymouth Meeting, PA's Inovio ($INO) recently said its candidate showed promise in mice. That biotech is shooting to start a human trial by the end of the year.

Merck ($MRK), Pfizer ($PFE), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) have all said they're evaluating their Zika R&D options.

The hysteria surrounding the virus and the accompanying R&D scramble is only weeks old, starting earlier this year when Brazil noted a spike of microcephaly cases reportedly linked to Zika. Now, the WHO has said that local Zika transmission has been reported in more than 50 countries or territories, and researchers just last week noted a link between the virus and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

- here's the Reuters story