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EU drugs agency sets up Zika task force to speed vaccine work

LONDON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Europe's drugs regulator said on Monday it had established an expert task force on Zika to advise companies working on vaccines and medicines against the virus, which is suspected of causing a spike in birth defects in Brazil.

With no currently approved vaccines or medicines and none even undergoing clinical studies, the move by the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) is designed to ensure Zika development work proceeds as rapidly as possible.

"The agency is encouraging medicines developers to contact EMA if they have any promising projects in this area. EMA will also proactively reach out to companies already planning to work on investigational vaccines and offer scientific and regulatory advice," it said in a statement.

"Early and regular interaction with the agency can significantly speed up the development of medicines."

Several biotech and pharmaceutical companies are racing to develop a Zika vaccine, including France's Sanofi (NasdaqGM: GCVRZ - news) , which already has vaccine for the similar condition of dengue.

But scientists know relatively little about Zika and the road to developing a preventative shot against the mosquito-borne disease is strewn with hurdles.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; editing by Adrian Croft)