Merck, known as MSD outside of the US and Canada, announced its entrance into the race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 relatively late compared to competitors, only revealing its efforts in May.
However, the one announcement featured three individual efforts against the novel coronavirus, which included buying Themis – a biotech with an infectious disease pipeline, containing a candidate against COVID-19 – and two partnership deals that saw the company gain access to an additional vaccine candidate, as well as a therapeutic.
The importance of Merck entering the fray against COVID-19 was emphasized by a piece of news that arrived early this year, as the company began the manufacture of an Ebola vaccine after approvals in Europe and the US.
The company’s vaccine arrived five and a half years after the virus emerged in West Africa, and this could explain why Kenneth Frazier, Merck’s CEO, was cautious in a recent interview about the speed of vaccine development being seen against COVID-19.
Manufacturing at scale
The interview with Merck’s CEO was published by Harvard Business School, covering the development of a vaccine to COVID-19 and the challenges that society, and industry, is currently facing in getting it to the population in time.
Frazier’s perspective on the prospects for a vaccine against COVID-19 raised an issue that has not seen as much light as the development of a candidate itself, manufacturing and distribution of any vaccine successfully created.
He suggested that such elements are “a bigger challenge than the science challenge of coming up with a safe and effective vaccine.”
One of the problems that Frazier identified is the fact that we’re living in a time of ‘ultra-nationalism’, which is seeing countries competing against each other for access to the supplies of any potential COVID-19 vaccine.
This evidenced by the US providing funding to a number of companies for the scaling of manufacture, in return for guaranteed access to a specified number of doses. It is by no means the only country to be employing such a strategy.
He noted that this could lead to difficulties getting the vaccine to areas of the world where it is most needed and where people cannot afford access.
A more fundamental issue is the reality of scaling up any vaccine’s manufacturing process to protect the population of the planet, with the world never having delivered a vaccine in such numbers.
“That’s going to be a huge issue for us,” Frazier observed.
Speed of development
The speed of development is posing a problem for the manufacture of vaccines, but could also result in wider problems, with implications for public health, the CEO suggested.
Frazier commented that aiming for a vaccine by the end of 2020 is doing a ‘grave disservice’ to the public. He reasoned that vaccines need to be backed by ‘rigorous science’, as previous examples, such as in swine flu, saw vaccines do ‘more harm than good’.
Providing an example of Merck’s work in the area, he explained that the fastest vaccine developed in history was the four years it took to produce a vaccine for mumps.
One of the issues is that SARS-CoV-2 is poorly characterized at the current time. Frazier warned that it is not fully understood how the virus affects the immune system and therefore how a vaccine will interact with the human body.
“Ultimately, if you're going to use a vaccine in billions of people, you better know what that vaccine does,” he concluded.