- Merck & Co. said Monday it will spend $425 million to acquire OncoImmune, a small Maryland-based biotech company, and its experimental COVID-19 treatment, further expanding its coronavirus drug research after a slower start than some other large pharmaceutical firms.
- OncoImmune, which before the pandemic was working to develop medicines for cancer, recently reported preliminary results from a small study of patients hospitalized with severe or critical COVID-19. Patients treated with OncoImmune's drug had a 60% better chance to recover than those given placebo, the company said in late September.
- The deal is Merck's second coronavirus-related acquisition, after a May buyout of Austrian biotech Themis and its experimental vaccine. Merck is also working with the nonprofit IAVI on a second coronavirus vaccine, and licensed an antiviral drug from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.
Drugmakers and researchers the world over have tested dozens of medicines, many repurposed from other diseases, for treating the worst symptoms of COVID-19. So far those efforts have yielded mostly disappointment and mixed results, with the cheap, generic steroid dexamethasone the only convincingly beneficial treatment.
OncoImmune's results appear promising, but come from an early look at 203 participants in a late-stage study the company began in April. The trial was randomized and placebo-controlled. To be enrolled, participants needed to be hospitalized and on breathing support.
Treatment with OncoImmune's drug — originally designed for graft-versus-host disease in leukemia patients receiving stem cell transplants — sped recovery and lowered the risk of death or respiratory failure, the company said.
The median time to recovery was 6 days for patients treated with the drug, compared to 10 days in the group that received placebo.
OncoImmune also reported large differences in time to recovery when comparing its drug together with Gilead's approved COVID-19 therapy Veklury or dexamethasone to either of those drugs paired with placebo. It's not clear, however, how many patients were involved in those comparisons.
The company said in September it plans to release more data "as soon as" the study is submitted to peer-reviewed medical journals.
Treatments for severe COVID-19 are desperately needed, particularly as surging infections in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere drive hospitalizations higher. While Veklury is approved for use in hospitalized patients, its benefit appeared greatest before patients need intensive breathing support, like ventilation. Synthetic antibody treatments, such as those recently authorized from Eli Lilly and Regeneron, don't appear to help patients who are already in the hospital with COVID-19.
OncoImmune's drug is a fusion protein that the company designed to target the body's innate immune system, which works ahead of "adaptive" immune defenders like those enlisted by vaccines. The drug was previously studied in healthy volunteers and in a Phase 2 trial for graft-versus-host disease.
Merck's investment comes as the pharma has advanced two experimental coronavirus vaccines into clinical testing. While a major vaccine maker, Merck was slower than some of its peers to start work on a preventive shot, losing out on an opportunity to partner with the University of Oxford, which chose to work with AstraZeneca and on Monday reported its vaccine can prevent COVID-19.
The two vaccines Merck eventually chose to work on use more established technologies, and the drugmakers hopes they may prove useful in a second wave of vaccines, possibly due to advantages in dosing.
Merck is also in late-stage testing with molnupiravir, an antiviral developed by Emory University and picked up by Ridgeback. Merck licensed the drug from Ridgeback in May.