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Merck Announces Acquisition and Collaborations to Combat COVID‑19

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 27 May 2020
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Image: Merck Announces Acquisition and Collaborations to Combat COVID‑19 (Photo courtesy of Merck)
Image: Merck Announces Acquisition and Collaborations to Combat COVID‑19 (Photo courtesy of Merck)
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.

Merck has entered into a definitive agreement with Themis, under which it will acquire, through a subsidiary, the privately-held company focused on vaccines and immune-modulation therapies for infectious diseases and cancer. In March, Themis joined a consortium together with the Institut Pasteur and The Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, supported by funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to develop a vaccine candidate targeting SARS-CoV-2 for the prevention of COVID-19. The planned acquisition builds upon an ongoing collaboration between the two companies to develop vaccine candidates using the measles virus vector platform, and is expected to accelerate the development of Themis’ COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The vaccine candidate is in pre-clinical development, and clinical studies are planned to start later in 2020.

“Building on the pioneering work of the Institut Pasteur, the Themis team has established specialized expertise that complements Merck’s own capabilities in the discovery, development, manufacturing and global distribution of vaccines,” said Dr. Roger M. Perlmutter, president, Merck Research Laboratories. “We are eager to combine our strengths both to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine in the near term and to build a pandemic preparedness capability directed toward emerging agents that pose a future epidemic threat.”

“This acquisition by announced a new collaboration to develop an investigational vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 to be used for the prevention of COVID-19., a global leader in vaccine development, reflects Themis’ success in applying our versatile immune-modulation platform that builds on the original discoveries from the Institut Pasteur,” said Dr. Erich Tauber, chief executive officer, Themis. “We are excited for the next phase of our relationship with Merck and in the near-term look forward to focusing resources toward the development and global scale-up of our candidate SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.”

Merck also announced a new collaboration with IAVI, a nonprofit scientific research organization dedicated to addressing urgent, unmet global health challenges, to develop an investigational vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 to be used for the prevention of COVID-19. Under the agreement IAVI and Merck will work together to advance the development and global clinical evaluation of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate designed and engineered by IAVI scientists. The 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. The vaccine candidate is in preclinical development, and clinical studies are planned to start later in 2020. Merck will lead regulatory filings globally. Both the companies will work together to develop the vaccine and make it accessible and affordable globally, if approved.

“COVID-19 is an enormous scientific, medical, and global health challenge. Merck is collaborating with organizations around the globe to develop anti-infectives and vaccines that aim to alleviate suffering caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Dr. Perlmutter. “Merck and IAVI are eager to combine our respective strengths to accelerate development of an rVSV vaccine candidate, with the goal of blunting the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“We believe an rVSV-based vaccine strategy represents a promising approach to combating the novel coronavirus pandemic and look forward to implementing an accelerated development program, together with Merck, to evaluate the potential of our vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2. The collaboration between Merck and IAVI represents an innovative partnership model and approach to utilize our joint capabilities in complementary and synergistic ways to address this difficult global health challenge,” said Dr. Mark Feinberg, IAVI president and CEO.

Additionally, Merck announced a new collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, a closely held biotechnology company, to develop EIDD-2801, an orally available antiviral candidate currently in early clinical development for the treatment of patients with COVID-19. Under terms of the agreement, Merck, through a subsidiary, will gain exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize EIDD-2801 and related molecules. Ridgeback Bio will receive an undisclosed upfront payment, specified milestones and a share of the net proceeds of EIDD-2801 and related molecules, if approved. Merck will be responsible for clinical development, regulatory filings and manufacturing.

“In addition to our efforts to develop potential vaccines to SARS-CoV-2, we have also been evaluating our own anti-viral assets and those from external sources for their potential to treat individuals with COVID-19,” said Dr. Perlmutter. “Clinical evaluation of EIDD-2801 in COVID-19 patients is just beginning, now that phase 1 studies have demonstrated that the compound is well-tolerated. Since preclinical studies demonstrate that EIDD-2801 has potent antiviral properties against multiple coronavirus strains including SARS-CoV-2, we are eager to advance the next phase of clinical studies as rapidly and responsibly as possible.”

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we have worked closely with our network of esteemed collaborators to advance EIDD-2801 into the clinic,” says Wendy Holman, chief executive officer, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. “This agreement with Merck, a leader in infectious disease therapeutics, positions us to harness the full potential of EIDD-2801 and, if approved, deliver it to the patients that need it globally.”

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