Merck Does Deals to Develop Coronavirus Vaccines, Drug

Big drugmaker Merck MRK -0.36%  & Co. said it is working on two potential vaccines and an experimental drug against the coronavirus, joining rivals in the frantic search for medicines.

Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies by sales, said Tuesday it is acquiring one experimental vaccine as part of the purchase of its Austrian maker, while partnering in the development of a second vaccine candidate and the potential drug.

The Kenilworth, N.J., drugmaker didn’t disclose the terms of the deals.

Some 150 coronavirus vaccines are in development world-wide, including at Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc., and more than 350 drugs are in the works or being studied, according to BioCentury, which is tracking the efforts.

Merck is a longtime maker of vaccines and antivirals, including human papillomavirus shot Gardasil. For weeks, the company had been looking inside its own walls for promising Covid-19 candidates, before deciding to pursue programs started elsewhere.

“We looked inside and outside, and the things we found outside were better,” Roger Perlmutter, Merck’s R&D chief, said in an interview.

Dr. Perlmutter said Merck has specific criteria for a coronavirus vaccine, including that it provide immunity with a single dose so a second shot isn’t needed, and that it use a proven technology that can be scaled up readily for manufacture.

For one vaccine, Merck said it is acquiring privately held Themis Bioscience, of Vienna. In March, Themis said it was collaborating with the French nonprofit Institut Pasteur and the University of Pittsburgh on Covid-19 vaccine development. Themis is working to scale up production for clinical trials that could begin within weeks, Dr. Perlmutter said.

Merck’s second coronavirus vaccine effort will take the form of a partnership with the scientific-research organization IAVI, whose experimental vaccine uses the same technology that is the basis for Merck’s Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, Dr. Perlmutter said.

Merck said it would help IAVI, a New York-based nonprofit, further develop the vaccine, which could begin human testing later this year.

In addition, Merck said it would license the rights to an experimental Covid-19 drug from privately held Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP of Miami. Merck plans to continue developing the drug, which is entering midstage testing in patients this week, Dr. Perlmutter said.

The drug works like remdesivir from Gilead Sciences Inc., which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency Covid-19 use on May 1, after a trial showed it shortened hospitalized patients’ recovery time.

Merck plans to target the drug at Covid-19 patients who aren’t yet severely sick, even if hospitalized, Dr. Perlmutter said.

Chief Executive Ken Frazier said he wouldn’t commit to a vaccine being ready within 12 to 18 months, as other companies and public officials have suggested is possible, because of the large clinical trials needed.

“Those take time. There’s no two ways about it,” he said in an interview. “We will move as rapidly and responsibly as we can, in conjunction with regulators, but I do not see any way around large clinical trials to show whether something is in fact safe and effective across a large population.”

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