Title: Executive Director of Project Management and Leadership
Over a 25-year career in vaccine R&D, Merck’s Beth-Ann Coller has learned that the pace of advancement in the field isn’t exactly fast. But after a deadly Ebola outbreak struck West Africa in 2014, her team quickly sprung to action, and the results of the work are a vaccine that health officials deployed against a recent outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, allowing them to quickly get control of the situation.
Throughout several roles in the industry, Coller has had experience working at a small biotech and at the world’s top vaccine companies. After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Coller jumped right into vaccine R&D at Hawaii Biotech, working on research against dengue virus. She joined as a staff scientist and worked her way up to lead the company’s flavivirus vaccine group.
Coller later switched gears to join GlaxoSmithKline with a role in virology, a career move that would require her to move to Belgium and quickly learn French to communicate with her new colleagues.
For five years, she worked at GSK overseeing R&D operations before returning to Hawaii Biotech to take over as the company’s R&D head. That stint ended in 2010 when Hawaii Biotech entered bankruptcy, but in a “fortuitous” turn, as Coller puts it, Merck acquired Hawaii Biotech’s dengue program. The scientist joined the New Jersey pharma giant in 2010.
In these various roles, she’s seen firsthand the major difference between working at a global pharma and a biotech upstart. At a biotech, she said, “you have to be a generalist,” while at a pharma company she’s surrounded by “specialists.”
Still, she said her Hawaii Biotech experience prepared her for her leadership role at Merck.
“You do whatever needs to be done,” she said of her time at Hawaii Biotech. Alternatively, “in a large company, you have great depths of expertise, and many people that you can rely on to do different things and they are all subject matter experts.”
At Merck, her team has been busy in recent years with the development of the company’s late-stage Ebola vaccine. Merck accelerated development of the program after the deadly 2014 outbreak in West Africa, and the shot this year was a key part of a response that helped healthcare officials take quick control of an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The vaccine is not yet licensed—officials used it this year under an emergency use authorization—but Merck plans to file for approvals this year.
Merck accelerated the program in response to the outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people. The company was among several pharmas and others to advance work on vaccines in response to the outbreak, and now Merck has the leading candidate.
Dengue is another area that’s challenged vaccine researchers in recent years. Sanofi won the first global approvals with its Dengvaxia, but that launch has faltered after a safety scandal in the Philippines. Takeda also has a phase 3 vaccine in development and has spent considerably on its program. Merck’s vaccine completed a phase 1 in 2014.