Merck to develop vaccine, clinical trials to start later this year

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Nurses work at a drive-thru testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, U.S., May 6, 2020.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

U.S. drugmaker Merck on Tuesday said it plans to work alongside IAVI, a non-profit scientific research organization, to develop a potential vaccine against the coronavirus.

It comes as drugmakers pause other clinical trials and scramble to find an antidote for Covid-19, which has infected over 5.5 million people worldwide and killed over 346,000.

Most experts agree that it could take between 12 to 18 months for a safe-to-use vaccine to be rolled out to the market. And, even if an effective vaccine becomes available, many have warned of significant logistical challenges around distributing enough doses for the global population.

In a statement published on Tuesday, Merck and IAVI explained their vaccine candidate for the coronavirus would use the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus (rVSV) technology that is the basis for its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine — which was the first rVSV vaccine approved for use in humans.

Ebola Zaire is one of six known species within the genus Ebola virus, an acute, serious illness that is often fatal if untreated. The virus causing the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the 2014 to 2016 West African outbreak, belongs to the Ebola Zaire virus species, according to the World Health Organization.

Designed and engineered by IAVI scientists in Brooklyn, New York, the vaccine candidate for Covid-19 is currently in preclinical development. Clinical studies are expected to start later in the year.

If approved, Merck said both organizations would work together to develop the vaccine and “make it accessible and affordable” worldwide.

Shares of Merck were up around 3% during pre-market deals.

Last month, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was important that, when a vaccine is ready, it could be equitably distributed across the globe.

“There should not be a divide between the haves and the have-nots,” he stressed.

‘Operation Warp Speed’

President Donald Trump has voiced ambitions for a vaccine to be developed and distributed by the end of 2020, in a project called “Operation Warp Speed.”

However, medical experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert — have cast doubt on Trump’s goal, expressing skepticism over the timeframe.

Dr. Mark Feinberg, IAVI president and CEO, said the rVSV-based vaccine strategy represented a “promising approach to combating the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

Merck and IAVI said the rVSV vaccine platform uses an attenuated strain of vesicular stomatitis virus, a common animal virus that has been modified to express proteins that stimulate an immune response.

The plan, they continued, was to “leverage experience” gained with this platform during the development of Merck’s rVSV-based vaccine for Ebola Zaire.

Separately, Merck said it plans to acquire privately held Themis, a company focused on vaccines and immune-modulation therapies for infectious diseases and cancer.

Under the terms of the agreement, Merck said in a statement that, through a subsidiary, it would acquire shares of Themis for an undisclosed cash payment.

Upon completion of the deal, Themis would then become a wholly owned subsidiary of Merck.

—CNBC’s Chloe Taylor contributed to this report.

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