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Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. is joining the campaign to develop a Zika vaccine with nearly $20 million in US funding for a Cambridge-based research program.

The company, which last year said it will move its global vaccines business to Cambridge from Deerfield, Ill., disclosed Thursday that it was tapped by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to produce a vaccine to treat the virus in the United States and abroad.

The initial contract of $19.8 million will fund the program into early-stage clinical trials. If it moves through late-stage trials, funding could grow up to $312 million.

“This is a high-priority program,” said Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda Vaccine. “The fact that the US government selected Takeda as a partner reflects their assessment of the capabilities and technology we have and our ability to get a drug to market quickly.”

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Takeda Vaccine currently has 10 to 15 people working on the program in Cambridge, Venkayya said, but most of the early research is being done in Deerfield, outside Chicago, and in Madison, Wis., Fort Collins, Colo., and Hikari, Japan. Next year, Takeda plans to consolidate its vaccine operations in Cambridge with about 120 people hired or relocated.

The current vaccines staff, operating out of temporary quarters at 64 Sidney St., will move into larger space on three floors of a biopharma building at 75 Sidney St., near the large Cambridge research center of affiliated Takeda Oncology. In addition to Zika, the vaccines division will be working locally on vaccines to treat Norovirus, Dengue, and pandemic influenza.

If Takeda Vaccine develops a successful Zika product, which may take several years to become commercially available, it would be manufactured in Japan, where parent Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. has its headquarters. The company grabbed a Cambridge foothold in 2008 when it paid $8.8 billion to buy the cancer drug maker Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc.

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Takeda will join drug giants GlaxoSmithKline PLC of the United Kingdom and Sanofi SA of France in the race to field the first vaccine for Zika, which can cause serious birth defects in the children of women infected during pregnancy. There is currently no treatment.

Zika has spread in recent years into more than 60 countries, including the United States.

Florida state officials Thursday said that they had trapped the first mosquitoes testing positive for the Zika virus near Miami, further confirming reports of US transmission.

The outbreak of the virus was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization on Feb. 1.


Robert Weisman can be reached
at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.