Merck joins Covid-19 pack with vaccine and antiviral deals

Merck & Co might have got off to a slow start, but now hopes to make up for lost time with multiple projects.

Perhaps the biggest question about Merck & Co entering the Covid-19 vaccine race is what took it so long. Today the US pharma giant announced a raft of coronavirus work including two vaccines and one antiviral, signalling its intentions about tackling the virus.  

Merck is going to have to hit the ground running and keep up the pace if it is to make headway in this crowded field. There are already 15 or so companies in the clinic with a vaccine, and the likes of Moderna and Astrazeneca have already announced human trials, with Astra hoping to start phase III by July.

However, the US pharma giant does have an advantage over most of its rivals: manufacturing capacity. The group is the second-biggest global vaccine maker after Glaxosmithkline, so if its efforts in the clinic are successful it will be well equipped to undertake the rapid scale-up and distribution that potentially vaccinating billions of people will require.

The speed of current vaccine development also means that, while Merck is unlikely to be the first to the finish, by taking a more measured approach it might achieve a more efficacious vaccine, which will be important if Covid-19 does become a seasonal virus. The group also appears keen to come up with a single-dose vaccine, again a potential advantage if millions or billions of people need to be protected.

In the first of three separate announcements Merck today said it had secured one vaccine candidate from a collaboration with the non-profit group Iavi, to work with its recombinant VSV technology. Choosing Iavi makes sense as rVSV is an approach Merck has already used to gain approval for its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine.

The other vaccine added to the roster comes via the acquisition of the private biotech company Themis. The two companies already had a relationship through their 2019 collaboration to develop vaccine candidates using Themis’s measles virus vector, and Merck will be taking a Covid-19 vaccine into development using this approach. 

Both vaccine candidates are to start clinical trials later this year, with Merck leading regulatory filings. In step with other vaccine developers, the group has secured funded from Barda for its collaboration with Iavi.

Top vaccine makers efforts in Covid-19
Company Covid Vaccine projects Status
Glaxosmithkline Glaxo/Cepi collaboration project Preclinical
  Glaxo/Clover biopharmaceuticals collaboration project Preclinical
  Glaxo/Sanofi Covid-19 adjuvanted vaccine project Preclinical
Merck & Co Merck/Iavi collaboration Preclinical
  Themis/Institut Pasteur/CEPI collaboration project Preclinical
Pfizer Pfizer/Biontech BNT162 mRNA vaccine Phase II
Sanofi Sanofi/Translate Bio mRNA vaccine collaboration Preclinical
  Sanofi/Glaxo Covid-19 adjuvanted vaccine project Preclinical
  Sanofi/Barda recombinant D3252 project Preclinical
CSL CSL/Cepi/University of Queensland project Preclinical

To cover all bases Merck also announced a collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to develop an oral antiviral, EIDD-2801. This is the most advanced of all of Merck’s new Covid-19 assets. Phase I trials started in early April and the results, which could come this summer, are sure to be closely watched, as the project has shown some effect in animal models for Sars and Mers.

But, while Merck is finally moving rapidly, its progress will surely be compared against that of other big pharma groups. Astrazenca has teamed up with Oxford University and expects results of a study in 1,000 volunteers for its AZD1222 vaccine soon, while Glaxo and Sanofi hope to start human trials by the second half of the year, with the aim of a working product by the end of 2021.

Investors in Merck have already been warned that the group stands to lose $1.7bn in pharma revenues this year from the Covid-19 pandemic. The hope now is that the group’s traditionally cautious approach will yield better result than its rivals, and eventually see the tortoise beat the hares.

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