Zika Virus Vaccine Project Launched by Sanofi Pasteur

PHOTO: Test tubes with blood samples are analyzed to rule out cases of the Zika virus in a health center in Caracas, Venezuela on Feb. 1, 2016.PlayCarlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
WATCH Zika Virus: The Basics

A French company is the first to announce it will attempt to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.

The Sanofi Pasteur company announced today it has launched a vaccine research and development project to target the Zika virus.

The Zika virus outbreak continues to spread across multiple countries, with at least 28 countries identified as having current outbreaks of the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease usually results in mild symptoms, including fever and rash that end after about a week. However, it has been associated with a rise of a dangerous birth defect called microcephaly, where an infant has an abnormally small head.

The World Health Organization declared the disease a "global public emergency" on Monday as the agency called on different governments and medical communities to combat the spread of the disease.

Officials from Sanofi Pasteur said their experience creating vaccines for similar viruses -- including yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis -- and attempts to create a possible dengue fever vaccine, may help them to find an new way to develop a Zika vaccine.

"Our invaluable collaborations with scientific and public health experts, both globally and in the regions affected by the outbreaks of [Zika virus], together with the mobilization of our best experts will expedite efforts to research and develop a vaccine for this disease,” said Dr. John Shiver, Global Head of R&D, Sanofi Pasteur, in a statement today.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News last week that based on past experiences with similar viruses, it may be possible for health officials to start testing a vaccine for the Zika virus later this year. The test would determine if the vaccine "is safe and effective," he noted.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert based at Vanderbilt University, said the vaccine would likely be a "killed" virus -- similar to a flu vaccine in which the virus is grown and then portions of the disable virus are used. A "killed" virus means it cannot lead to infection of the disease after it has been administered, as a vaccine, Schaffner noted.

While pregnant women are the focus of concern due to the virus' association with a birth defect, Schaffner said they would probably not be the first ones to get the virus.

"Although we're interested in protecting pregnant women, I think the actual strategy would be able to give vaccine to as many people in the population as possible," Schaffner said of regions affected by the outbreak. "It would reduce the risk of the mosquito becoming infected," and spreading the disease to pregnant women.