HONG KONG – Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Asia’s largest drugmaker, has assembled an internal team to look into how it might contribute to vaccine efforts to combat the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne pathogen that is currently spreading through the Americas.
The company has been in contact with several global health organizations, Rajeev Venkayya, president of the Japanese company’s vaccine business unit said in an interview. He did not specify whether it was planning its own vaccine. The eight-person team will be led by Venkayya, who was previously a special assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush for biodefense at the White House.
The Osaka-based company already has vaccine programs that combat diseases in the same virus family as Zika. It will begin late-stage trials on its dengue fever vaccine this year. Both viruses are spread by the same species of mosquito and share similar symptoms.
Companies from French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to U.S.-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. are beginning work toward a vaccine to combat Zika. Researchers are studying Zika’s possible links to a surge in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads. The World Health Organization on Monday declared that the outbreak in Latin America is a public health emergency of international concern. Vaccines can take years to develop and countries are likely to have a long wait before there is an effective one against Zika.
“We’re looking at this very seriously,” Venkayya said, referring to Takeda’s potential contributions to Zika vaccine research. He noted that discussions were “very early-stage” and no concrete decisions had been made.
The travel industry has already seen early effects from the Zika outbreak as tourists review plans to visit Latin America. Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, said that one of the first priorities should be controlling mosquito populations that have spread the virus.
Paris-based Sanofi said yesterday its vaccines unit would work on developing a Zika vaccine. It won approval in December in Brazil and Mexico for the world’s first inoculation against dengue.