Merck MRK, which has up until now been slow on coronavirus-related research efforts, announced three deals to find new medicines and vaccines to help combat the deadly coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
Merck announced a deal to acquire Austrian private biotech Themis, which makes vaccines and immune-modulatory therapies to treat infectious diseases and cancer using its measles virus vector platform. The technology was initially developed at the Institut Pasteur, a European vaccine research institute. In March, Themis had joined a consortium with the Institute Pasteur and The Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh to make a COVID-19 vaccine. The consortium has funding support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global organization based in Oslo. Themis’ COVID-19 vaccine candidate is in pre-clinical development with clinical studies expected to start later this year. Merck already has an ongoing collaboration with Themis to make vaccine candidates using the measles virus vector platform
Merck announced that it is buying exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize private biotech Ridgeback Biotherapeutics’ oral antiviral candidate, EIDD-2801, which is being evaluated in early clinical studies to treat COVID-19. Merck will take care of clinical development and regulatory filings of the candidate.
In pre-clinical studies, EIDD-2801 improved pulmonary function, lowered bodyweight and reduced the amount of virus (SARS-CoV-1 and MERS) in the lung.
In addition to an undisclosed upfront payment, Merck is entitled to make specified regulatory and sales-based milestone payments to Ridgeback.
Meanwhile, Merck also signed a collaboration with a nonprofit research organization, IAVI to co-develop a vaccine, designed by IAVI scientists, to prevent COVID-19. The vaccine candidate will leverage the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology, which has also been the basis of development of Merck’s rVSV-based vaccine for Ebola Zaire, Ervebo. Merck also said that it has signed an agreement with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) requesting to initially fund the vaccine’s development.
In response to the coronavirus-related announcements, Merck’s shares were up 1.2% on Tuesday. However, Merck’s shares have declined 15.1% this year so far, compared with the industry’s 2.5% decline.
With the three announcements, Merck joins large drug/biotech companies like Pfizer PFE, J&J JNJ, Glaxo, Sanofi SNY, AstraZeneca Gilead, Amgen and Regeneron which are leaving no stone unturned in making vaccines, antibodies and drugs to combat the disease, which has infected more than 5.6 million and killed more than 3,50,000 people globally.
Several companies like Novavax, Moderna, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer and partner BioNTech have initiated human/clinical studies on a coronavirus vaccine. Several other vaccine candidates are in pre-clinical stage of development.
Among treatments for COVID-19, Gilead leads with its investigational antiviral candidate, remdesivir, which is being evaluated in phase III studies to treat COVID-19.
Similar to Merck, companies like Pfizer, Biogen, Lilly, Glaxo and Amgen have also signed collaborations with smaller biotechs to co-develop antibody therapies to treat COVID-19. Separately, many marketed drugs are being evaluated to treat respiratory complications associated with COVID-19 or to treat critically ill hospitalized COVID-19 patients, which is also the need of the hour.
All eyes are on pharma/biotech companiesto find a treatment/vaccine for COVID-19 as they are being considered the key to bring stalled global economies back on track.
Merck currently has a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell).
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