Merck, known as MSD outside of the US and Canada, was the first company to bring a working Ebola vaccine through development and into commercial use.
It was therefore unusual that the company had made no specific announcements about developing a treatment or vaccine against the novel coronavirus – though it had made several commitments to providing funds to support healthcare workers and patients.
Today, Merck changed this by revealing no fewer than three separate business deals that could see it play a role in efforts against the virus.
Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, confirmed the company had been working on solutions to the virus since its emergence: “Merck has been fully committed to developing an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic since it was first recognized, and we know that success will require global collaboration among countries and companies and more.”
The collaborative steps now taken comprise of acquiring Themis Bioscience, a company working on vaccines and immune-modulating therapies for infectious diseases, including COVID-19; a partnership with IAVI, a nonprofit scientific research organization, to develop an investigational vaccine; and, a collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to progress its oral antiviral candidate for the virus.
The buyout of Themis is one that adds a number of vaccine candidates and immune-modulatory therapies to Merck’s pipeline.
Currently, Themis has eight pipeline candidates at various stages, though only three have progressed into clinical trials.
The Austrian company’s most advanced project is a vaccine for Chikungunya virus, which has progressed through to Phase II trials and is gearing up for Phase III.
In addition to its existing pipeline, Merck noted that Themis had also develop a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
The candidate is already in preclinical development and clinical studies are expected to take place later in 2020.
Further than this, Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, stated that the acquisition would allow Merck to work on building pandemic preparedness capability against ‘emerging agents’ that could potentially lead to future epidemics.
The exact financial details of the deal were not announced.
Of the two partnerships agreed, Merck’s deal with Ridgeback Bio is the more concrete – with a specified drug candidate against COVID-19 at its heart.
The oral antiviral, EIDD-2801, is currently in early clinical development and the agreement sees Merck gain exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize the potential drug.
In return, the biotech will receive an upfront payment, again undisclosed, as well as milestone payments and a share of the ‘net proceeds’ of EIDD-2801.
Once the deal is complete, Merck will be responsible for all further clinical development and manufacturing.
The third deal sees Merck partner with IAVI to collaborate on an unidentified SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate. The potential vaccine is in preclinical development and clinical studies are expected later this year.
Merck noted that the vaccine candidate will use the same recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is the basis for its own Ebola vaccine.