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Lexington biotech and Sanofi plan to work together on coronavirus vaccine

Translate Bio becomes the latest local drug company to join the effort to prevent COVID-19.

An image of the novel coronavirus.
An image of the novel coronavirus.BSIP/Universal Ima

Lexington-based biotech Translate Bio and the vaccines unit of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi said Friday they will collaborate on developing a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, the latest in a series of such efforts involving Massachusetts drug makers.

Translate and Sanofi Pasteur said the companies are expanding on a 2018 deal to develop messenger RNA vaccines for as many as five infectious diseases. Translate specializes in developing mRNA medicines.

“The Translate Bio and Sanofi Pasteur teams have generated encouraging preclinical data across multiple infectious disease targets as part of our ongoing mRNA vaccine collaboration," said Ronald Renaud, chief executive of Translate. "This work will serve as a strong foundation as we direct joint research efforts against COVID-19 to help address this public health threat.”

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There’s no approved vaccine for COVID-19, but the World Health Organization lists more than 40 vaccine candidates around the globe. The first to enter clinical trials was jointly developed by Moderna, of Cambridge, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

On March 16, healthy volunteers began receiving doses of the experimental Moderna vaccine, which also relies on custom-built messenger RNA to produce an immune response. That trial at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle is scheduled to run about six weeks, but experts say it will probably take at least a year before a vaccine made by any company could be deployed.

Like Moderna, the German biotech CureVac, with about 20 employees in Boston, is also working on a messenger RNA vaccine. It says it hopes to begin clinical trials in early summer.

Sanofi paid more than $20 billion in 2011 for Cambridge-based Genzyme, the pioneering developer of medicines for rare diseases. Sanofi employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. That includes about 4,800 in Massachusetts, according to a report last year by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council trade group. That makes it the second-biggest employer of any drug maker in the state, behind only Takeda Pharmaceutical, the Japanese drug giant.

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Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com