Trailing Big Pharma peers, Merck inks deals to advance COVID-19 drugs, vaccines

For months, as the world’s largest vaccine companies jumped into COVID-19 research and inked partnerships, Merck was conspicuously quiet. That changed in late April when the drug giant unveiled some of its early efforts—and now, Merck is publicly unveiling a vaccine partnership with the U.S. government, a biotech buyout and an R&D pact for a potential therapeutic.

In an update Tuesday, Merck said it’s partnering with nonprofit research group IAVI on a preclinical vaccine candidate based on the same platform used by Merck's Ervebo, the wold's only licensed Ebola shot.

With the help of $38 million in backing from the U.S. government’s BARDA agency, the pair aim to start human trials “later in 2020.” The idea is to deliver rapid immunity with just one dose of the potential shot. The two will work through development steps together, and Merck will handle regulatory filings. 

Meanwhile, Merck is buying privately held Swiss biotech Themis for access to a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed by the biotech and its partner, Institut Pasteur. And on the therapeutic side, Merck said it's teaming with Ridgeback Bio on a potential COVID-19 antiviral. 

RELATED: Merck, slower than its peers, edges into COVID-19 fight 

The moves are Merck's first public efforts amid biopharma's larger war on COVID-19, and they follow word in April that the drugmaker was embarking on a "broad-based development program" targeting the novel coronavirus. Merck had "teams of scientists" scanning drugs and vaccines that might work, the company said at the time, as discussions with potential partners were ongoing.

But unlike some of his peers, Merck CEO Ken Frazier isn't touting a quick fix. In an interview with the Financial Times, Frazier said the 12- to 18-month timeline often floated for COVID-19 vaccines is "very aggressive" and "not something I would put out there that I would want to hold Merck to."

"You want to make sure that when you put a vaccine into millions if not billions of people, it is safe,” he told the newspaper. Large clinical trials sometimes take years to complete, he pointed out.

Merck's Tuesday deals come more than three months after J&J teamed up with the U.S. government on COVID-19 research, and more than two months after Pfizer partnered with BioNTech. For their part, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline inked an unprecedented partnership in mid-April. AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford teamed up in late April.