Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines arm of Sanofi, has launched a vaccine research and development program that targets the Zika virus.

The move is deemed the most significant commitment yet from a major vaccine maker to fight the disease believed to cause multiple birth defects, such as underdeveloped brains in babies, in Brazil and at least 14 other Latin American countries and territories.

The World Health Organization already declared the Zika virus outbreak an international emergency last Monday in its meeting of experts on the matter. In a statement, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the experts agreed on the link between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly – also it is yet to be “scientifically proven.”

“In their view, a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread,” Dr. Chan said, confirming her acceptance of the panel’s advice.

Sanofi Pasteur research head Nicholas Jackson, who is at the helm of the Zika vaccine project, said they are “responding to the global call to action” to create a vaccine given Zika virus’s rapid spread and potential health complications.

The company seeks to leverage the existing industrial and research infrastructure of its newly licensed dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, to accelerate the Zika virus’ development.

At present, only small biotech firms and academic institutions have committed to develop a vaccine for the infection, although GlaxoSmithKline said its feasibility studies on the viability of a vaccine is already being wrapped up.

Sanofi has already developed vaccines against viruses within the same family as Zika, with licensed ones for yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and dengue.

Currently there is no vaccine or specialized treatment for Zika virus, with vector control still the leading means to control the mosquitoes responsible for spreading it.

Zika is a close relative of dengue and is transmitted by the same mosquito species. It is also marked by similar symptoms, such as fever, rashes, headaches, and joint swelling.

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