Big Pharmas cautious on Zika vaccine development

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Big Pharmas GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Johnson & Johnson pitched head-first into Ebola vaccine work at the most recent outbreak’s peak in 2014. But they are approaching the current Zika outbreak more cautiously with concerns about the marketability of a Zika vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) vaccines chief Moncef Slaoui noted to Bloomberg that large groups in Zika-affected areas may develop natural immunity toward the virus within the next 5 to 10 years. A rise in natural immunity could slow the virus’ spread, making widespread vaccination less urgent. And aside from its threat to pregnant women, Zika infection has mild symptoms, especially compared to Ebola disease. A Zika vaccine could be relegated to national stockpiles rather than be used broadly in immunization programs, thus hobbling the sales potential of the jab.

“This is not seen as a commercial market, at least for the time being,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at the WHO, as quoted by Bloomberg.

The current Zika outbreak is starting to wind down, Kieny said, with cases declining in Brazil, Colombia and Cape Verde. People in the Americas could develop the natural immunity against Zika that those in Southeast Asia and Africa seem to have developed, Bloomberg reported.

Of the top vaccine makers, only Sanofi has made a firm commitment to developing a Zika vaccine, on the strength of its two-decade experience creating a dengue vaccine. Dengue is in the same virus family as Zika, so the company's hope is its previous work will speed up the timeline for a Zika jab. The French pharma hopes to kick off human trials next year.

Meanwhile, Merck ($MRK), J&J ($JNJ) and Pfizer ($PFE) announced earlier this year they would evaluate their options to develop a Zika vaccine. Multiple experts note that creating a Zika vaccine will be a lengthy process thanks to a lack of prior research. Ebola vaccine makers had the benefit of decades of work against the virus, and so, brought candidates to human trials relatively quickly.

While GSK has yet to decide whether it will develop a Zika jab, it said it may take 10 to 15 years to bring a Zika jab to market. The NIH is working on a candidate that it plans to test in humans this fall, while Inovio Pharma ($INO) recently reported positive results in monkeys and plans to move into human trials this year.

- read the Bloomberg story

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