Merck Enters Race to Develop COVID Vaccine

The world's largest vaccine maker is no longer on the COVID sidelines after acquiring an Austrian biotech and teaming up with a nonprofit.
Matthew HellerMay 26, 2020

Merck is adding its muscle to the battle against COVID-19, announcing moves to develop a vaccine with an Austrian biotech firm and a research nonprofit.

The world’s largest vaccine maker said Monday it will acquire Vienna-based Themis, which has been working with the Institut Pasteur on a COVID-19 vaccine based on a measles vaccine.

“We are eager to combine our strengths both to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine in the near term and to build a pandemic preparedness capability directed toward emerging agents that pose a future epidemic threat,” Dr. Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said in a news release.

In another major move, Merck is partnering with the nonprofit IAVI on the development of a vaccine related to Merck’s existing Ebola vaccine.

As FierceBiotech reports, Merck, whose vaccine business generated sales of $8.4 billion last year, had “stayed on the sidelines in the early days of the pandemic as peers such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Sanofi placed bets on COVID-19 vaccine candidates.”

“In selecting Themis as a key plank of its COVID-19 strategy, Merck has indicated it thinks the biotech’s vaccine can clear a high bar,” FierceBiotech said.

The Themis vaccine is based on a modified measles virus that delivers bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the body to prevent COVID-19 while the IAVI vaccine uses the same technology as Merck’s Ebola vaccine, Ervebo. Both vaccines are made using technologies that have resulted in licensed products.

“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,” Merck CEO Ken Frazier told Reuters.

The company has previously said it is trying to identify internal resources and contract manufacturers that would enable it to produce 1 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louise Chen said in a research note she expected Merck to be “an important player in the COVID-19 vaccines and treatments landscape” and called the approach to pursue multiple vaccine strategies “a good means to diversify risk.”