Merck Outlines COVID-19 Ambitions With Buyout Deal, Collaborations

Xconomy New York — 

Merck exited the holiday weekend with some fireworks of its own, announcing three major programs on Tuesday all related to investments in finding ways to treat and prevent COVID-19.

The Kenilworth, NJ-based pharma giant said it had inked an agreement to acquire Austrian vaccine developer Themis, which has a COVID-19 candidate in preclinical development; develop another investigational vaccine with nonprofit IAVI, which also has a candidate in preclinical development; and develop and commercialize a clinical-stage antiviral candidate being advanced by Florida biotech Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

Financial terms weren’t disclosed. Merck (NYSE: MRK) anticipates both vaccine candidates will enter human tests later this year.

Themis, whose technology—which deploys the measles virus as a vector for delivering antigens—was originally developed by scientists at the Institut Pasteur. The privately held biotech joined a consortium in March to develop a vaccine candidate targeting SARS-CoV-2, a group supported by funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which has backed many COVID-19 vaccine efforts in recent months.

Following the acquisition, a cash deal, Merck says it plans to accelerate the development of the candidate Themis has developed. The companies previously agreed to collaborate to develop vaccine candidates using the measles virus vector platform.

In its collaboration with IAVI, Merck plans to use the technology it used to develop a vaccine against the Ebola virus that the FDA approved last December. As part of that deal, Merck said it has also signed an agreement with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which will provide initial funding for development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate designed and engineered by IAVI scientists. That work is being conducted by scientists at IAVI’s Design and Development Laboratory (DDL) in Brooklyn, NY.

Under the agreement Merck will lead regulatory filings for the candidate, and the organizations, if approved, will work together make it “accessible and affordable globally,” according to the Merck announcement. Manufacturing will take place in the US and Europe.

The experimental drug from Ridgeback EIDD-2801, to which Merck gets exclusive worldwide development and commercialization rights, is in Phase 1 testing. he FDA cleared Ridgeback to start human tests of the compound in the US last month. Ridgeback licensed the compound the month prior from Drug Innovations at Emory, a not-for-profit biotech owned by Emory University.

Like remdesivir, the investigational Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) drug recently authorized by the FDA under emergency guidelines as a treatment for severe COVID-19 patients, EIDD-2801 is an antiviral. Unlike the Gilead drug, which is delivered intravenously, the molecule is designed for oral delivery.

Ridgeback gets an upfront payment, milestone payments, and cut of sales if a product is approved out of its work on EIDD-2801 with Merck. Merck will handle clinical development, regulatory filings, and manufacturing.

Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter, in a statement, said the Ridgeback deal comes in addition to internal efforts to develop an antiviral drug to treat COVID-19.