- Merck & Co. plans to soon begin clinical testing of two coronavirus vaccine candidates recently acquired through deals with Austrian biotech Themis and the nonprofit group IAVI, the company said Friday.
- A study of the Themis vaccine is expected to start first, likely sometime in August, while the shot developed by IAVI will enter the clinic sometime later this year. Merck has made a point of advancing its research carefully, even as other groups raced ahead to start trials in the spring and early summer.
- Ken Frazier, the drugmaker's longtime CEO, has previously said promises that a vaccine will be ready by the end of this year are a "grave disservice to the public." Even so, Merck's R&D chief told investors Friday that the early study results released to date for other vaccine candidates, like Moderna's, give grounds for "reasonable optimism."
Merck was the last of the major vaccine companies to disclose its plans for a coronavirus vaccine, announcing in late May the acquisition of Themis and a new partnership with IAVI.
Two months on, those projects are nearing clinical testing and Merck executives are making the case for why they waited.
"There's reason to believe that multiple different vaccines will be required in order to manage this extraordinary pandemic," said Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, on a company earnings call Friday.
Perlmutter described Merck's hope that both the Themis and IAVI shots, which are based on already established vaccine technologies, would be potent enough to be given via a single shot — a goal shared by Johnson & Johnson, but one that's proved challenging to meet.
IAVI's vaccine is constructed using a vesicular stomatitis virus that delivers the genetic code for the coronavirus' spike protein, while the Themis candidate uses a modified measles virus to accomplish the same task. In both cases, the delivery viruses are engineered so they reproduce, but don't infect the body.
Preclinical studies have shown the candidates can spur production of antibodies capable of neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Perlmutter said.
Notably, Perlmutter suggested the IAVI candidate could have the potential to be given orally, rather than injected, which could make vaccination easier.
While early-stage studies have yet to begin, plans for the large efficacy studies needed to win regulatory clearance are nearly complete, Perlmutter said.
In addition to vaccines, Merck also licensed an oral antiviral drug from Ridgeback Bio, with which it's collaborating on development. Per the agreement, Merck has exclusive global rights.