Merck canned its own COVID-19 vaccines. Now, it's in talks to manufacture other companies' shots

After Merck & Co. got off to a late start in the COVID-19 vaccine race and made an early exit, the drug giant is in talks to aid the global vaccine manufacturing effort.

The drugmaker is “actively involved” in discussions with governments, health agencies and other pharmaceutical companies to “identify the areas of pandemic response where we can play a role, including potential support for production of authorized vaccines," a spokesman said via email.

News of the talks comes about two weeks after Merck abandoned both its coronavirus vaccine candidates—one it acquired through its Themis buyout and the other it was studying in partnership with IAVI. Merck said the two shots had produced immune responses weaker than those prompted by natural infections as well as by other COVID-19 vaccines.

Still, the company believes it has an “important responsibility to contribute to the pandemic response," the spokesman said, and remains "at the ready to do so."

While Merck hasn't indicated which companies it could help with production, there has been industry talk about a potential tie-up with Novavax. After the vaccine biotech last month presented positive phase 3 data on its candidate, Evercore ISI analyst Josh Schimmer said he suspected Merck might "step up" as Novavax's manufacturing partner.

Novavax CEO Stan Erck then told CNBC's Meg Tirrell that Merck "could be a good partner for us as they don't have a competing product." He also named GSK as a company with those capabilities. At the time, Merck told Tirrell it was focused on therapeutics.

Meanwhile, Merck has two coronavirus therapeutics in development—MK-4482 and MK-7710—and the company believes it can make a “meaningful contribution” to the fight against the pandemic by focusing its resources on those candidates, its spokesman said.

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Last summer, as COVID-19 vaccine programs raced forward, Merck CEO Ken Frazier said the hype about vaccines launching in late 2020 was doing a “grave disservice” to the pandemic fight. Vaccines previously took years to develop, he pointed out, and Merck itself was responsible for many of them.  

He wasn't alone. Merck and other major vaccine players were taking a slower, time-tested approach, experts said, but their vaccines could end up reaching more people worldwide than more revolutionary shots would. Things didn’t turn out that way. Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and other programs are now either rolling out or nearing rollouts, while several leading vaccine giants have either exited the field or faced R&D setbacks.

If Merck does strike a manufacturing deal with a COVID-19 vaccine player, it won’t be the first company to do so. After an R&D setback on its GSK-partnered vaccine, Sanofi last month said it would produce 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine for Europe.

The Pfizer-BioNTech team has also enlisted Swiss drugmaker Novartis in its global push to produce billions of doses. In a deal unveiled in late January, Novartis said it would allow BioNTech access to its site in Stein, Switzerland. Manufacturing there will start next quarter, and doses will be ready from the site by the third quarter.

RELATED: Novartis pitches in to help produce Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

Also this week, Teva said it was in talks to help with COVID-19 vaccine production. The company has sites in Israel, Europe and the U.S. that could be used in the global effort, CEO Kåre Schultz said, according to The Wall Street Journal.