• Animal tests to help drugmaker select promising candidates
  • Company in active talks for possible Zika partnerships

Sanofi will begin testing potential Zika vaccines on animals this quarter, a step forward in the French drugmaker’s plans to select the most promising approaches, and start tests on humans next year.

“We are still whittling down our list of options,” Nicholas Jackson, head of research at Sanofi’s vaccine division, said in telephone interview Wednesday. By the end of June Sanofi will have “important animal studies ongoing. That animal work will be a very important part of being able to shortlist vaccine candidates that we think will hold promise.”

Paris-based Sanofi is the biggest pharmaceutical company rushing to develop a vaccine for the mosquito-borne virus that’s spreading rapidly across the Americas. The French drugmaker is betting its 20-year experience in developing a vaccine for dengue, a cousin of Zika, will allow it to quickly make inroads with the Zika virus. Other candidate vaccines are being developed by companies and institutions including Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The Zika virus been determined to be the cause of a jump in the number of babies born with an alarming birth defect and is suspected in an increase in cases of a rare neurological disorder. The virus doesn’t cause serious illness in most infected people, who may experience mild flu-like symptoms. It will probably spread in Europe in the next three to four months, though the risk of an outbreak in people varies by region, the World Health Organization said earlier today.

Sanofi, which has teams working on the program both in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Marcy l’Etoile, outside of Lyon, still aims to start testing an experimental Zika vaccine in human beings next year, Jackson said today. It’s too soon to say when such a vaccine could be on the market, he added.

Sanofi is “actively” talking to a “variety of different parties,” including institutions, universities and diagnostic companies, for potential Zika partnerships, he said.

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