Merck has agreed to acquire biotech firm OncoImmune for $425 million to add a promising treatment for serious COVID-19 infections to its assault on the virus.

The acquisition comes two months after a late-stage clinical study showed OncoImmune’s CD24Fc drug, also known as Saccovid, reduced the risk of respiratory failure or death by more than 50% in patients hospitalized with Covid-19 and requiring oxygen.

Merck is already developing two COVID-19 vaccines and an antiviral for treating patients with mild-to-moderate cases of the virus.

“Recent clinical investigations support the view that CD24Fc may provide benefit beyond standard of care therapy for COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen support, and hence will represent an important addition to the Merck pipeline of investigational medicines and vaccines designed to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Merck’s research chief, Dr. Roger Perlmutter, said in a news release.

According to FierceBiotech, CD24Fc “may help a population failed by multiple other drugs.” The World Health Organization recommends against the use of remdesivir in hospitalized patients, anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies have failed in the patient population and efforts to repurpose existing inflammatory disease drugs have also floundered.

“If you look at the other anti-inflammatories that have been studied in very ill Covid-19 patients, it’s been hard to show there’s any effect at all,” Perlmutter told CNBC.

As part of its anti-COVID efforts, Merck acquired Austria’s Themis Bioscience. Testing of its two vaccine candidates has not advanced as far as that of drugs from rivals Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.

Privately-held OncoImmune, which was founded in 2000, has been investigating CD24Fc as a possible treatment for preventing the hyperactivation of the immune system in leukemia patients.

The Phase 3 study of the drug for critically ill Covid patients also showed a 60% higher probability of improvement in clinical status compared to a placebo. Median recovery time in the CD24Fc group was six days, compared to 10 days in the control cohort.

“We look forward to working with the scientists and manufacturing engineers at Merck as well as regulators as we seek to accelerate the global development of this potentially important therapy,” OncoImmune CEO Yang Liu said.

(Photo by Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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