Pharma giant Merck just jumped into the coronavirus race with 2 vaccine candidates slated to start human testing this year

Evan Agostini/Invision/APMerck CEO Ken Frazier.
  • One of the world’s biggest drugmakers officially jumped into the race for coronavirus treatments and vaccines.
  • The $US190 billion pharmaceutical company Merck announced three deals on Tuesday: two coronavirus vaccine programs along with an experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill.
  • The two potential vaccines will begin human trials this year, Merck said. The pharma did not disclose a detailed development timeline or financial details of the deals.
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Merck has officially joined the sprint for a coronavirus treament or vaccine.

While dozens of biopharmaceutical companies have started this research, Merck stands apart as one of a few companies with the vast resources and experience to impact a pandemic. The $US190 billion pharma giant with more than 70,000 employees has one of the largest vaccine businesses in the world.

After vaguely hinting at coronavirus research efforts for several weeks, Merck unveiled its research ambitions Tuesday. The company highlighted three programs – two vaccine efforts and one experimental antiviral pill.


Read more: Scientists are racing to create a coronavirus vaccine that can halt the pandemic in its tracks. Here are the top 3 candidates from Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca aiming to be ready this fall.

“We will ensure that all of these programs have the resources, attention and focus they need – and that the COVID-19 pandemic demands,” Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier said in a statement.

Merck is collaborating with the nonprofit IAVI to build off its success in crafting an effective Ebola vaccine that was approved in the US last December. The US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is also providing funding to advance this vaccine candidate.

This candidate uses a type of animal virus called vesicular stomatitis virus. Merck’s scientists have been able to manipulate this virus to have it express certain proteins that can trigger an immune response. This platform worked for Ebola, leading Merck to produce the first US-approved Ebola vaccine.

Merck said a coronavirus vaccine candidate should start human trials sometime in 2020. If successful, Merck and IAVI said they will make it affordable and accessible globally.


Read more: Moderna just put out promising early data on a coronavirus vaccine, but the CEO told us the biggest challenge lies ahead: making enough doses to immunize the world

Merck also said it is buying Themis, a private biotech company working on vaccines. The company has specialised in using the measles virus to deliver vaccines. The virus acts as the delivery system to provide human cells with an antigen. Themis first licensed the technology in 2010 from the Pasteur Institute, a leading French nonprofit research group.

Themis has been working alongside the Pasteur Institute and the University of Pittsburgh to craft a coronavirus vaccine candidate. The group has received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

Finally, Merck signed a deal with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics for a possible antiviral COVID-19 treatment. Called EIDD-2081, Merck said early clinical studies showed the experimental drug is well tolerated in humans.

Merck didn’t disclose financial details of any of these deals.


Read more: There are more than 100 potential coronavirus vaccines in the works. Here are the top efforts to watch, including the 20 programs expected to start human trials this year.

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