Merck Enters Race to Develop COVID Vaccine

Grant Boone
May 28, 2020

The $US190 billion pharmaceutical company Merck announced three deals on Tuesday: two coronavirus vaccine programs along with an experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill.

The Themis vaccine, developed in collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, is based on a modified measles virus that delivers bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the body to prevent COVID-19.

Merck is the latest pharmaceutical giant to join the race to develop a vaccine to treat COVID-19.

In another major move, Merck is partnering with the nonprofit IAVI on the development of a vaccine related to Merck's existing Ebola vaccine. Merck's shares rallied 3 per cent in premarket following the news. The Austrian vaccine manufacturer proposed a drug candidate earlier this year as the potential cure for COVID-19.

The IAVI and Merck will work together to advance the development and global clinical testing of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate designed and engineered by scientists at IAVI's Design and Development Laboratory (DDL) in Brooklyn, New York, that is now in preclinical development.

They use eight different types of technologies - known as "platforms" in the vaccine development world - which offer various advantages and disadvantages.

In an interview with Reuters, Merck's chief executive officer Ken Frazier indicated that the company was waiting for therapies with proven track records before moving deeply into the COVID-19 arena.

Frazier said Merck had not signed any pacts with the US government to deliver doses of either vaccine to Americans first, adding it was committed to making its vaccines accessible globally and affordably.

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Mr Trump retweeted a photograph of Mr Biden and an accompanying message that mocked the former vice president for wearing a mask. On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump mocked a White House correspondent for wearing a mask to a press briefing.

Chief Executive Office Kenneth Frazier said the pandemic and Merck's efforts to counter it have delayed planned leadership changes, but galvanized the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company's commitment to global solidarity.

The latest to make it through to the clinic is from USA biotech Novavax, which has partnered with the non-profit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop the potential vaccine. The privately held company is manufacturing an oral antiviral experimental drug aimed at curing COVID-19.

Another likely consideration is that both vaccine candidates utilize proven technology, unlike some of the other vaccines under development, notably Moderna and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech, both of which leverage messenger RNA technology.

The company hasn't disclosed how much it is paying for Themis, which also adds a pipeline of vaccines for other infectious diseases as well as cancer.

The vaccine that newly-acquired Themis is on the cusp of clinical trials, while the vaccine being developed with IAVI is set to enter clinical studies later this year. This vaccine candidate will use the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is the basis for Merck's Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, ERVEBO (Ebola Zaire Vaccine, Live), which was the first rVSV vaccine approved for use in humans.

EIDD-2801 may potentially arrest infections at an earlier stage, he said, adding that it also appears easier to synthesize and manufacture on a large scale.

An early stage clinical trial showed EIDD-2801 was well-tolerated, while preclinical studies found it induced mutations in a broad range of coronaviruses, causing them to make catastrophic errors when they replicate.

The company indicates it is similar to Gilead Sciences' remdesivir, which has emergency use authorization for COVID-19, but can be taken as a pill, rather than as a transfusion. Efficacy trials, as per Frazier, will begin later this year.

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