(Reuters) - Sanofi SA said on Monday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) approved $43.18 million in funding to accelerate the development of a Zika vaccine, as efforts to prevent the infection gather momentum.
The funding from the HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will be used for mid-stage trials, expected to begin in the first half of 2018, and for manufacturing, the French drugmaker said.
The contract runs through June 2022, but if the data is positive, the contract includes an option for up to additional $130.45 million for late-stage trials necessary for eventual approval.
Work on the vaccine began in March as a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department Of Defense's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), BARDA and the National Institutes of Health. Sanofi in July teamed up with WRAIR to co-develop the vaccine.
Earlier this month, BARDA gave Japanese drugmaker Takeda Pharmaceutical Co nearly $20 million in initial funding to develop a Zika vaccine.
Sanofi is one of the many companies around the world looking to develop a vaccine against the virus that has spread rapidly since the current outbreak was first detected last year in Brazil.
Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been infected with Zika in the Americas and parts of Asia. Most have no symptoms or experience only a mild illness.
The virus can penetrate the womb in pregnant women, causing a rare but crippling birth defect known as microcephaly. In adults, it has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a form of temporary paralysis.
Zika, a member of the flavivirus species that includes dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus, is typically spread by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
It can be also passed on through sex, a unique characteristic among mosquito-borne viruses.
Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine unit of Sanofi, already has several vaccines approved for others flaviviruses, such as yellow fever, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.
As of September, the HHS has awarded at least $433 million in repurposed funds to support Zika response and preparedness activities.