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Merck buys Themis as part of drive for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines

Deal also adds a pipeline of vaccines for other infectious diseases as well as cancer

Merck HQ

Merck & Co/MSD has been conspicuous by its absence from the industry-wide effort to develop coronavirus therapies, but has now unveiled a broad effort across drugs and vaccines.

The silence from the company was particularly striking as it is a major player in the vaccines market, with the production capacity to make a vaccine at the huge scale required to respond to a pandemic-scale threat.

Now, it has pushed forward on a number of fronts, cutting deals for two vaccines and an antiviral drug.

Firstly, the drugmaker has opted to buy privately-held Austrian biotech Themis, which has been working on a candidate vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – that it licensed from France’s Institut Pasteur.

The measles virus vector-based vaccine has already received backing from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and is due to start clinical trials before the end of the year. At the moment there are already ten vaccines in clinical development for SARS-CoV-2, according to the World Health Organization’s latest update, with another 114 candidates in preclinical testing.

Merck – known as MSD outside North America – has been working with Themis on various undisclosed vaccines based on its measles platform since last August, when it announced a deal with the biotech that included an equity investment, research funding and up to $200m in milestones.

The company hasn’t disclosed how much it is paying for Themis, which also adds a pipeline of vaccines for other infectious diseases as well as cancer.

Secondly, Merck has also announced a collaboration with the non-profit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), which could see another vaccine candidate start trials later this year.

That candidate will be based on the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is already been deployed successfully in Merck’s Ebola virus vaccine – Ervebo – which was approved in Europe and the US last year. It has received financial support from the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

The IAVI and Merck will work together to advance the development and global clinical testing of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate designed and engineered by scientists at IAVI’s Design and Development Laboratory (DDL) in Brooklyn, New York, that is currently in preclinical development.

Finally, Merck has added an antiviral drug candidate for SARS-CoV-2 via a licensing deal with Ridgeback Bio for a phase 1 candidate called EIDD-2801 that was originally developed as an influenza therapy.

It inhibits the same viral enzyme – RNA-dependent RNA polymerase – as Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, which is currently leading the pack of potential coronavirus therapies with early access approvals in the US, Japan and UK.

While remdesivir is given intravenously, EIDD-2801 is dosed orally, so could be more suitable for widespread use in the general population.

Merck has licensed exclusive worldwide rights to EIDD-2801 and related molecules, with Ridgeback in line for an undisclosed upfront payment, milestones and a share of the net proceeds if the drug or a follow-up is approved.

Article by
Phil Taylor

27th May 2020

From: Research, Regulatory, Healthcare

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