Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, which is building a huge vaccine plant in Holly Springs, said Monday it has licensed a potential vaccine for a type of herpes virus from AlphaVax Inc.

Novartis said it is paying $20 million upfront to the Research Triangle-based company to secure the right to a developmental vaccine for the cytomegalovirus, or CMV.

AlphaVax has raised more than $80 million in venture capital and partner funding.

The company has proprietary technology for producing vaccines based on modified alphaviruses. Alphaviruses are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as RNA-containing viruses that are often found in mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Earlier this year, Alphavax received a second grant from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases to support the firm’s efforts to develop a smallpox vaccine.

"We are happy to gain access to a promising vaccine candidate for the prevention of cytomegalovirus infections, which are particularly problematic during pregnancy, as they can cause permanent disability in newborns", Dr. Andrin Oswald, chief executive officer of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, said in a statement.

A virus of the herpes family, CMV can seriously harm patients with weakened immune systems, such as newborns or those with AIDS or cancer. According to Novartis, the virus infects about 86,000 newborns in the United States and European Union each year, causing 700 deaths and 17,500 cases of severe disability.

The vaccine is expected to enter phase II clinical trials next year, Novartis said.

If successful, it would be the first vaccine against CMV, the company said, adding that it has also secured an option to buy 4 million AlphaVax shares at the end of phase II clinical trials.

AlphaVax will also be eligible for milestone payments and royalties, Novartis said.