Zika update: Vaccine race swells, PaxVax CEO on how to stop 'chasing epidemics'

PaxVax CEO Nima Farzan

As the Zika virus continues to spread, more biotechs are announcing their Zika vaccine programs. Meriden, CT-based Protein Sciences, Atlanta-based GeoVax Labs and Redwood City, CA-based PaxVax are the latest. PaxVax plans to bring its candidate to animal trials during the first half of this year, CEO Nima Farzan told FierceVaccines.

While the World Health Organization named Zika an international public health emergency on Feb. 1 and President Barack Obama prepares to ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the virus, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci reminded us that it is "unlikely to have a vaccine that's widely available for a few years" at a White House briefing.

Getting caught off-guard by epidemics like this has happened time and time again. And "chasing" outbreaks instead of anticipating them rarely results in a vaccine being developed in time. Witness the most recent Ebola epidemic: Merck's ($MRK) experimental vaccine, the furthest along in a crowded field, won't be submitted for regulatory approval until 2017, more than two years after the outbreak started.

And that was when we had known about Ebola for decades, Farzan said. Companies got a head start in 2014 from partly developed candidates that had been shelved away. It is not so with Zika. "Almost everyone is pretty much starting from scratch," he said.

To avoid this and have programs in place before an outbreak hits, Farzan said, governments and nongovernmental organizations like the WHO should create economic incentives for companies to make vaccines for neglected diseases like Zika. Farzan pointed to the FDA's priority review voucher system, in which a company developing a vaccine for a neglected tropical disease receives a transferable voucher for expedited FDA review. Malaria and dengue have been on the list of neglected diseases for years, but Zika is not yet on the list.

Government stockpiles and reimbursed R&D are other ways to help vaccine makers develop product, Farzan said. But funding from NIH grants and the like usually goes toward early-stage development, with not as much funding for the expensive part: actually manufacturing a candidate and getting it through late-stage trials and to market.

When asked if industry itself can have a role in creating economic incentives for companies to develop and manufacture vaccines for neglected diseases, Farzan said yes--but mostly in lobbying. It is up to governments and other entities like the WHO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work with industry to create these incentives.

- read more about Protein Sciences
- and here's the GeoVax release
- and here's more from The Washington Post