Amid next-gen vaccine race, Merck says ex-employee bolted to Pfizer with 'thousands' of key documents

Merck & Co. and Pfizer are in a very public race to market with their next-gen pneumococcal vaccines. But behind the scenes, Merck claims a former high-level employee jumped ship to Pfizer with a load of trade secrets, giving its rival an unfair advantage. 

Merck, which is hoping to launch a 15-strain pneumococcal shot, sued Pfizer and the former employee in May for allegedly stealing "thousands of proprietary documents" and taking them to her new employer.

Dr. Wendy Watson, who served as Merck's regulatory liaison with the FDA for vaccines, “surreptitiously stole highly valuable” info on her way out of Merck, the lawsuit claims, and much of the theft occurred “late at night and from home.” Watson left Merck in 2011, but the New Jersey drugmaker didn’t learn about the alleged theft until 2017, a court filing states.

With the stolen info, Merck argues, Pfizer “developed a robust patent portfolio” and “accelerated its development of its own clinical candidate vaccines.” 

Now, Pfizer's fighting to get the allegations tossed out of court. In a motion to dismiss, Pfizer says Merck’s lawsuit is “the latest salvo in Merck’s years-long effort to challenge Pfizer’s pneumococcal conjugate vaccine patents.” Merck doesn't have enough evidence to support its case, the motion states, and hasn't shown Pfizer knew or should have known about the alleged theft, the motion states. 

Pfizer already markets the world’s bestselling vaccine, Prevnar 13, which generated $5.8 billion last year.

In response to Pfizer’s motion, Merck said its rival drugmaker “mischaracterizes” the alleged trade secrets, and relies on a “falsehood” to argue against the lawsuit.  

RELATED: Racing with Merck, Pfizer wins FDA 'breakthrough' tag for 20-valent pneumococcal vaccine 

As the litigation plays out, the companies are continuing to develop their respective pneumococcal vaccine candidates. Pfizer has scored an FDA “breakthrough” tag for its program, and Merck has started a phase 3 study testing its potential shot against Pfizer’s Prevnar 13.  

Trade secrets theft has been a hot topic in pharma in recent years. Genentech last year sued Taiwan’s JHL, arguing former employees downloaded confidential information onto an external hard drive to help the company develop biosimilars to top Genentech meds. The companies inked a settlement last month under which JHL will pay for Genentech’s legal expenses and costs of the investigation and stop developing its would-be rival products.

RELATED: Genentech settles fight over cancer drug trade secrets with Taiwan's JHL 

And Teva previously sued a former executive of providing her boyfriend—who was CEO at rival generics maker Apotex—with trade secrets. The companies settled in April 2018.