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

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Nurses work at a driving screen for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, the United States, on May 6, 2020.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

US drug maker Merck announced Tuesday it plans to work with IAVI, a nonprofit scientific research organization, to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine.

This comes as drug manufacturers halt other clinical trials and scramble to find an antidote to Covid-19, which has infected more than 5.5 million people worldwide and killed more than 346,000 people.

Most experts agree that deploying a safe vaccine to the market could take between 12 and 18 months. And even if an effective vaccine becomes available, many have warned of significant logistical challenges related to the delivery of sufficient doses to the world’s population.

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

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

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

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

Merck’s shares rose about 3% in pre-market.

Last month WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was important that when a vaccine was ready it could be distributed fairly around the world.

“There should be no division between the haves and the have-nots,” he said.

“Operation Warp Speed”

President Donald Trump has expressed his 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 United States’ leading expert on infectious diseases – have questioned Trump’s purpose, expressing skepticism over time.

Dr. Mark Feinberg, President and CEO of IAVI, said that the rVSV-based vaccine strategy represents a “promising approach to tackling the new 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 engineered to express proteins that stimulate an immune response.

The plan, they said, was to “build on the experience” gained with this platform during the development of Merck’s rVSV vaccine for Ebola Zaire.

In addition, Merck has announced plans to acquire Themis, a private company specializing in vaccines and immunomodulatory therapies for infectious disease and cancer.

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

Once the agreement is reached, Themis would then become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Merck.

—CNBC Chloe taylor contributed to this report.

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