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Sept 1 (Reuters) - Japanese drugmaker Takeda Pharmaceutical Co on Thursday said it is developing a vaccine to prevent the Zika virus, which has been linked to severe birth defects, and has secured funding for the effort from a U.S. government agency.
Takeda, which is also working on vaccines for other mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue, said it would initially receive nearly $20 million to fund pre-clinical research and manufacturing in preparation for early human trials.
The contract with BARDA, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a unit within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, calls for funding of up to $312 million if the agency deems the vaccine worthy of moving through late stage testing and filing for approval, the company said.
Takeda has been conducting preclinical testing for several months and hopes to begin Phase I trials in healthy volunteers in the second half of 2017, Rajeev Venkayya, head of global vaccines for Takeda, said in a telephone interview.
The company said it was also in discussions with the Japanese government on its possible participation in the Zika collaboration.
The Takeda vaccine will utilize inactivated, or killed, whole Zika virus to promote an immune response, Venkayya said. The vaccines now in early human testing are DNA-based and contain no actual virus.
Takeda joins several companies and government agencies in efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine against the virus that has spread across the Americas since the current outbreak was first detected last year in Brazil.
In recent weeks, U.S. authorities determined that local mosquitoes are transmitting the Zika virus in an area of south Florida, while the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has experienced a widespread outbreak. More recently, Singapore identified a local outbreak.
The virus in pregnant women can cause the rare birth defect microcephaly, which can lead to serious developmental problems, and has also been linked to severe fetal brain abnormalities, creating an urgency to develop a preventive vaccine.
While mosquitoes are the primary mode of transmission, Zika can also be transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected person.
At least one company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health have already begun human trials of vaccine candidates. (Reporting by Bill Berkrot, editing by G Crosse)