World's First Dengue Vaccine Approved After 20 Years of Research

  • Sanofi's Dengvaxia approved in Mexico; 19 countries may follow
  • Decisions in Latin America, Asia expected in coming weeks
Photographer: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

The first vaccine against dengue fever won clearance in Mexico, an initial step toward preventing a mosquito-borne infection that puts half of the world’s population at risk.

Sanofi expects more approvals in “upcoming weeks” for the product, called Dengvaxia, in Latin America and Asia, Olivier Charmeil, who heads the Paris-based company’s vaccines unit, said in a telephone interview. The injection can thwart all four types of the virus, which has appeared in Portugal, France, Florida and Japan recently and increased the risk of “explosive outbreaks,” according to the World Health Organization.

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Outbreaks are on the rise. Unlike malaria, another disease spread by mosquitoes, dengue affects wealthier urban populations in middle-income countries in Latin America and Asia in addition to poorer African nations. A water shortage in Sao Paulo prompted residents to store drinking supplies in pots and tanks, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes and a dengue epidemic involving thousands of cases this year. In Hawaii, 139 cases have been confirmed in an ongoing outbreak, most of them in local residents.

Dengvaxia, developed over the past 20 years at a cost of 1.5 billion euros ($1.65 billion), including manufacturing investments, awaits approval in at least 19 other countries. Mexico’s regulator endorsed it for people between the ages of 9 and 45 living in areas where the disease is endemic.

Dengvaxia’s sales may reach $1.4 billion by 2020, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Sanofi said Dengvaxia “will be priced at a fair, affordable, equitable and sustainable price.” Some countries may distribute it for free, said Guillaume Leroy, vice president of the dengue vaccine team at Sanofi. The shot isn’t recommended for children under 9 years old because clinical studies suggest it protects them less well.

“We are making dengue a preventable disease, which makes us incredibly proud,” Charmeil said in the interview.

Dengue infection causes flu-like illness that can develop into potentially fatal complications. Warning signs include bleeding gums, vomiting, rapid breathing and severe abdominal pain. One recent estimate indicates about 390 million dengue infections per year, according to the WHO. It kills less than 1 percent of those infected.

Other companies are developing alternative approaches to frustrate the virus. Oxitec Ltd. developed a way to genetically modify male mosquitoes so that their offspring die as late larvae or pupae.

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