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The race for the billion-dollar-a-year dengue vaccine

By David Floyd for Kapitall

Half of the world's population is at risk of contracting it. In 2010 alone, 2.4 million cases were reported, but the actual number could be as high as 390 million cases per year. There's no vaccine and no specific treatment. Without care, patients can die at a rate of 20 percent, though with monitoring and rehydration, the mortality rate drops to 1 percent.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne illness that affects people in tropical regions. Right now, an outbreak is raging in São Paulo, Brazil due to a drought. Residents have been hoarding water to survive severe shortages, but all that standing water has provided a breeding ground for dengue-carrying mosquitoes. By early March, suspected cases exceeded 50,000.

The world is still waiting for a vaccine, and the market for one could be huge: according to a GlobalData estimate , it could reach $400 million in 2020. Other estimates more than triple that number, saying the vaccine could bring in $1.4 billion a year at its peak.

And drug companies are intrigued. In 2012, Fiocruz Director Mitermayer Galvão dos Reis told the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine that both Merck ( MRK ) and GlaxoSmithKline ( GSK )-the latter in partnership with Fiocruz's Bio-Manguinhos-were working on a dengue vaccine. Novartis ' ( NVS ) Institute for Tropical Diseases is also looking into dengue fever.

But last year, a clear leader emerged. In July, Sanofi ( SNY ) became the first company to publish phase III trial results, which it followed up with a second round in September. The latest results revealed 60.8 percent and 95.5 percent efficacy against symptomatic and severe dengue, respectively, in patients ages 9-6 and an 80.3 percent reduction in risk of hospitalization.

If Sanofi gets regulatory approval, the company could market the world's first dengue vaccine in the second half of this year.

But that's a big if, and Takeda (OTCMKTS:TKPYY) is hot on Sanofi's heels following its 2013 acquisition of Invirogen. The company is still in phase II trials, but could release a vaccine as early as 2017.

Even if Sanofi is successful, its vaccine doesn't protect against all four serotypes of dengue with the same level of effectiveness, and these strains vary depending on the region. The price tag is another concern. Sanofi has dropped about $1.7 billion on this vaccine over 20 years, so the vaccine had better sell well.

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1. GlaxoSmithKline ( GSK , Earnings , Analysts , Financials ): Engages in the discovery, development, manufacture, and marketing of pharmaceutical products, over the counter (OTC) medicines, and health-related consumer products worldwide. Market cap at $112.78B, most recent closing price at $46.69.

2. Merck & Co. ( MRK , Earnings , Analysts , Financials ): Provides various health solutions through its prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies, animal health, and consumer care products. Market cap at $161.38B, most recent closing price at $56.86.

3. Novartis AG ( NVS , Earnings , Analysts , Financials ): Engages in the research, development, manufacture, and marketing of healthcare products worldwide. Market cap at $268.97B, most recent closing price at $99.86.

4. Sanofi ( SNY , Earnings , Analysts , Financials ): Engages in the discovery, development, and distribution of therapeutic solutions to improve the lives of everyone. Market cap at $132.06B, most recent closing price at $49.93.

(List compiled by David Floyd. Monthly returns data sourced from Zacks Investment Research. All other data sourced from FINVIZ.)

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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