Merck in collaboration to develop coronavirus vaccine

Henrietta Brewer
May 28, 2020

Merck (Kenilworth, NJ, USA) has announced three significant scientific initiatives to combat COVID-19: two agreements to develop potential vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, and a research collaboration to advance the development of a novel antiviral candidate. Themis has a broad pipeline of vaccine candidates and immune-modulatory therapies developed using its innovative measles virus vector platform based on a vector originally developed by scientists at the Institut Pasteur, a European vaccine research institute, and licensed exclusively to Themis for select viral indications.

Gerberding said the "lessons learned" through Merck's Ebola virus research and development research and development make her reluctant to over-promise on how quickly a vaccine can be delivered.

After vaguely hinting at coronavirus research efforts for several weeks, Merck unveiled its research ambitions Tuesday.

Merck, known as MSD outside of the USA and Canada, was the first company to bring a working Ebola vaccine through development and into commercial use.

IAVI's rVSV vaccine preclinical development, including work on the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate, is being done by scientists at IAVI's Design and Development Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York. IAVI and Merck will leverage experience gained with this platform during the development of Merck's rVSV-based vaccine for Ebola Zaire.

Most big pharmaceutical companies have already placed their bets on COVID-19 treatments. But Merck has been waiting for opportunities with proven track records, Chief Executive Ken Frazier said. Both the companies will work together to develop the vaccine and make it accessible and affordable globally, if approved.

Merck said a coronavirus vaccine candidate should start human trials sometime in 2020.

The US-based pharma, known as MSD outside the US and Canada, said it will utilise technology that is already used in its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine Ervebo. Funding has been provided by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

Merck did not disclose how much it cost to acquire Themis, a privately held company, or any other terms of the agreement. Clinical studies are expected to start this year itself.

In addition, Merck said it would license the rights to an experimental Covid-19 drug from privately held Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP of Miami. Merck plans to continue developing the drug, which is entering midstage testing in patients this week, Dr. Perlmutter said.

Frazzier, 65, said the pandemic has delayed plans for him to step down, as well as to find a replacement for R&D leader Roger Perlmutter, a former president of the American Association of Immunologists who first joined Merck in 1997. In animal studies, the drug improved pulmonary function, decreased body-weight loss and decreased the amount of virus in the lung for both SARS-CoV-1, the coronavirus that caused SARS, and another coronavirus that causes MERS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.

The drug works like remdesivir from Gilead Sciences Inc., which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency Covid-19 use on May 1, after a trial showed it shortened hospitalized patients' recovery time.

The two potential vaccines will begin human trials this year, Merck said. "We will move as rapidly and responsibly as we can, in conjunction with regulators, but I do not see any way around large clinical trials to show whether something is in fact safe and effective across a large population". Efficacy trials will start later this year.

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