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Pharma giant Merck reveals COVID-19 vaccine plans

CHICAGO: Merck & Co, which has largely kept to the sidelines of the race for COVID-19 treatments, said it was buying Austrian vaccine maker Themis Bioscience and would collaborate with research nonprofit IAVI to develop two separate vaccines.

It also announced a partnership with privately held Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to develop an experimental oral antiviral drug against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Merck did not disclose the terms of the acquisition of Themis, a privately held company.

Most big pharmaceutical companies have already placed their bets on COVID-19 treatments. But Merck has been waiting for opportunities with proven track records, Chief Executive Ken Frazier said.

“We wanted to be in a position where we could choose things that have the right kind of characteristics to make a contribution for a virus that’s likely to be with us for some time,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Both vaccines under development are designed to be delivered in a single dose.

The Themis vaccine, developed in collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, is based on a modified measles virus that delivers bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the body to prevent COVID-19.

It was developed in part through funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

Merck said it moving quickly with this candidate and expects to start vaccinating volunteers “within weeks.”

The IAVI vaccine uses the same technology as Merck’s Ebola vaccine ERVEBO, recently approved by the European Commission and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

That candidate, which Merck is developing jointly with IAVI, is expected to start human trials sometime this year, Frazier said.

The U.S. Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is backing the effort.

Both vaccines are made using technologies that have resulted in licensed products, unlike some frontrunners, such as the rapidly developed vaccine from Moderna, which is expected to start large, late-stage clinical trials in July.

More than 100 vaccine candidates against SARS-CoV-2 are in development, with about 12 in human testing designed mainly to evaluate safety.

Last week, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Merck’s vaccine, and those from Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, were a month or two behind Moderna’s, but may be added to large efficacy trials this summer as they wrap up early-stage studies.

“I think we’ll be in a position to participate,” Frazier said of Merck’s vaccines.

Merck intends to shoulder the cost of scaling up production of the vaccines before either has been proven to work, although it has not yet determined where they will be manufactured commercially, he said.

Doses of the Themis vaccine are already being made in France for clinical trials. Merck plans to begin early production of the vaccine it is developing with IAVI at its plant in Pennsylvania.

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