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Sanofi will work on developing a vaccine against Zika virus, the mosquito-borne pathogen whose explosive spread has touched off a global public health emergency.

The French drugmaker plans to harness its work against dengue fever to attack Zika, a virus from the same family, Sanofi said in a statement on Tuesday. The Paris-based company’s Sanofi Pasteur vaccines unit won approval in December in Brazil and Mexico for the world’s first inoculation against dengue.

Sanofi, the parent company of Cambridge biotech giant Genzyme Corp., took two decades to figure out how to thwart dengue. It may take years to produce an effective shot against Zika, which appears to cause birth defects when pregnant women are infected. Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. said last week it was testing a potential vaccine in mice. The World Health Organization’s declaration Monday that the outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern will allow the United Nations agency to begin coordinating government responses.

“Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine given the disease’s rapid spread and possible medical complications,” said Nicholas Jackson, who heads research for the company’s vaccine unit and will drive the Zika project.


The virus is “spreading explosively” in Latin America along with a spike in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads. In Brazil, the virus has been linked to more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly and President Dilma Rousseff’s chief of staff on Tuesday advised pregnant women not to travel to the 2016 Olympic Games to avoid infection.

Urgent action is needed to contain the Zika virus, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement Tuesday.

“The only way to stop Zika virus disease is to control the mosquito vectors or completely interrupt the human-to-vector contact, and do so alongside measures to reduce poverty,” Walter Cotte, director of the federation’s Americas region, said in the statement.


Little work has been done so far on the virus. Dengue fever has inspired 14,840 academic papers, yet there have been only 242 papers published about Zika, according to data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland. The two are closely related. They belong to the same Flavivirus family, are spread by the same species of mosquito and share similar symptoms, such as fever, rash, joint swelling, conjunctivitis and headaches, according to Sanofi.

Besides dengue, Sanofi sells vaccines against other diseases caused by viruses from the same family as Zika, such as yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis.