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Merck Inks Three Covid-19 Vaccine, Therapy Deals

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, responsible for Covid-19 infections (NIH.gov)

26 May 2020. Drug maker Merck today gained a new acquisition, along with collaboration and licensing deals, for vaccines and a therapy for Covid-19 infections. Financial details of the transactions and agreements between Merck, based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, and Themis Bioscience, IAVI, and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were not disclosed.

Themis Bioscience in Vienna, Austria designs vaccines for infectious diseases and cancer immunotherapies. The company’s vaccines apply technology licensed from Institut Pasteur in Paris that use genetically engineered measles viruses to deliver antigen proteins, integrated into the viral genome, for invoking immune-system reactions to specific diseases. These viral packages are delivered directly to machrophages and dendritic cells in the immune system that Themis says are also designed to replicate after delivery. This replication feature helps provide long-term immunity against the target pathogen.

The company has vaccines in its pipeline protecting against chikungunya, zika, and lassa fever in clinical trials, with another vaccine against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS, a coronavirus, in preclinical testing. The MERS vaccine is funded by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations or CEPI. In March, Themis joined a CEPI-funded consortium developing a vaccine against the SARS-Cov-2 virus responsible for Covid-19 infections.

With this acquisition, Merck gains the Themis measles-virus delivery system as well as the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, now in preclinical testing. Clinical trials of the vaccine are planned for later in the year. Themis is expected to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Merck.

IAVI is a not-for-profit research organization, formerly known as the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, but now uses the initials since its mandate has broadened to other infectious diseases. While based in New York, IAVI operates largely overseas, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and India, where their work led to discovery of neutralizing antibodies being tested to prevent HIV infections.

In their agreement, IAVI and Merck will advance a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine based on Merck’s Ebola vaccine using a recombinant or engineered vesicular stomatitis virus. This engineered virus is based on a single strand of RNA with a collection of proteins that allow for expressing foreign antigens, making it a candidate for delivering vaccines. Merck applied that technology for its Ervebo vaccine, approved by FDA in December 2019 to protect against Ebola. Merck and IAVI plan to develop their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine at IAVI’s lab in Brooklyn, New York, with funding provided by Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a U.S. federal agency.

In the deal with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics in Miami, Merck is gaining exclusive global rights to Ridgeback’s EIDD-2801, a proposed therapy for Covid-19 infections. EIDD-2801, says Ridgeback, uses synthetic genetic material to prevent replication of SARS-CoV-2 viruses after infection, thus limiting its spread and severity. The company says animal tests against SARS and MERS coronaviruses show EIDD-2801 decreases the amount of virus in the lung, improves breathing, and reduces weight loss. EIDD-2801 was funded by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and received clearance from FDA to begin clinical trials in the U.S. as a treatment for Covid-19 infections.

Kenneth Frazier, Merck’s chairman and CEO, says in a company statement, “Merck intends to make any vaccine or medicine we develop for this pandemic broadly accessible and affordable globally, and we are working now to accomplish this goal as quickly as possible.”

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