Merck, J&J, Pfizer consider joining Zika vaccine race

While the early entrants to the race for a Zika vaccine have been on the smaller side--think Hawaii Biotech, NewLink Genetics ($NLNK) and Inovio Pharmaceuticals ($INO)--the big guns are now joining in. Just one day after Sanofi ($SNY) announced a firm plan to develop a vaccine for the mosquito-borne disease, a parade of Big Pharmas has joined GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) in "evaluating their technologies" for the potential of developing a Zika vaccine.

A week ago, GSK and Sanofi announced they would review their options on developing a Zika vaccine. On Tuesday, the French pharma announced a commitment to apply its decades of research for a dengue vaccine to the development of a Zika vaccine. On Wednesday, Pfizer ($PFE), Merck ($MRK), Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Takeda all announced that they'd look into their existing vaccines and technologies for the potential to create a vaccine against Zika.

"Pfizer is currently analyzing its existing vaccines portfolio in response to the Zika outbreak to see where we might be able to play a role," a Pfizer spokeswoman said, as quoted by Reuters. J&J is evaluating its "available technologies" while Merck is working with public health partners to see what it can do, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, Takeda has dispatched an 8-person team to investigate its Zika R&D options.

In India, Bharat Biotech is developing a recombinant vaccine and an inactivated vaccine for Zika. The latter will enter animal trials in two weeks, Reuters reported.

Now, all four of the top global vaccine makers are are either in the race for a Zika vaccine or are considering entering it. Contrast this to the search for an Ebola vaccine, in which only two of them--Merck and GSK--took part.

Glaxo and Sanofi may have a leg up, both companies having developed vaccines for mosquito-borne diseases. GSK's malaria jab won an EMA green light last summer, though it likely won't be rolled out for another year. And Sanofi's dengue vaccine is rolling through regulatory approvals in individual countries, including Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines. Takeda also has a dengue vaccine in development and plans to take it to late-stage trials this year.

While Zika symptoms are relatively mild, it is suspected to have more insidious effects. The chief concern is a suspected link between Zika cases and a spike in babies born with microcephaly, or smaller-than-usual heads and brains.

- here's the Reuters story
- read more about Bharat Biotech
- and here's more about Takeda from Bloomberg

Special Reports: The top 5 vaccine makers by 2014 revenue - Merck - Sanofi - GlaxoSmithKline - Pfizer