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Biotech Solutions for Zika

June 9, 2016

The Zika virus epidemic continues to rage on. Just today, the WHO advised people in Zika affected countries (much of Latin America and the Caribbean) to consider delaying pregnancy, and emerging evidence suggests a broader range of possible complications for babies born to women infected with the virus than was first thought. Solutions are urgently needed, and biotechnology companies are hard at work to contribute. During a Wednesday at the 2016 BIO International Convention, attendees heard from leaders at 3 different biotechnology companies working on the problem.

Moderated by Andrew Rudman, Managing Director at ManattJones Global Strategies, the panel included:

  • Dr. Roman Chicz, Global Head, External R&D, Sanofi Pasteur;

  • Dr. Annie De Groot, M.D. Founder, CEO & CSO, EpiVax; and

  • Hadyn Parry, CEO, Oxitec Ltd

Dr. De Groot opened the session by describing her EpiVax’s computational virology technology to screen virus envelope proteins and attempt to predict how immunogenic it will be – and how easy a vaccine will be to make. EpiVax’s technology was able to predict the low seroconversion rate of the H7N9 (Avian flu) vaccine, which ended up having a seroconversion rate of just 6% when unadjuvanted. Unfortunately, the Zika virus envelope protein appears to be about as immunogenic as H7N9 – meaning the development of an effective vaccine will likely be difficult.

Fortunately, there are companies with decades of experience developing vaccines for Flaviviruses (the genus of viruses Zika belongs to). Dr. Chicz shared Sanofi’s experience developing their recently approved vaccine for Dengue (also a flavivirus), which took over 20 years and involved three major changes.

A great deal of interest was shown in a novel approach to controlling the vector through which the virus spreads – the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Hadyn Parry fielded questions about Oxitec’s genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitos, whose offspring die before they reach breeding maturity, dramatically reducing the population. “Within a period of about 6 months, you can crash the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in an urban environment by over 90% -- in fact we’ve had trials of up to 99%, which is quite staggering,” said Parry.  When considering that sprays would control 30-50%, “we are a paradigm shift in efficacy.”