Almost every day, there's news of yet another company making strides on a novel coronavirus vaccine. When it's ready, the world will need billions of doses. That's a lot of vaccinations — and potentially a lot of money for the company that cracks the vaccine code.
But a public health emergency needs public buy-in. Public-private partnerships have emerged where both sectors work together to share resources, risks and responsibilities.
One such partnership was announced Tuesday between US pharmaceutical giant Merck and the nonprofit scientific research organization IAVI. Merck, which has largely kept to the sidelines of the race for COVID-19 treatments, said it was buying Austrian vaccine maker Themis Bioscience and would collaborate with research nonprofit IAVI to develop two separate vaccines.
The company also announced a partnership with privately held Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to develop an experimental oral antiviral drug against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Most big pharmaceutical companies have already placed their bets on COVID-19 treatments, but Merck has been waiting for opportunities with proven track records, chief executive Ken Frazier said.
The Themis vaccine, developed in collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, is based on a modified measles virus that delivers bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the body to prevent COVID-19. It was developed in part through funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
The IAVI vaccine uses the same technology as Merck’s Ebola vaccine ERVEBO, recently approved by the European Commission and the US Food & Drug Administration. That candidate, which Merck is developing jointly with IAVI, is expected to start human trials sometime this year, Frazier said. The US Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is backing the effort.
Both vaccines are made using technologies that have resulted in licensed products, unlike some frontrunners, such as the rapidly developed vaccine from Moderna, which is expected to start large, late-stage clinical trials in July. Merck intends to shoulder the cost of scaling up production of the vaccines before either has been proven to work, although it has not yet determined where they will be manufactured commercially, Frazier said.
Frazier said Merck had not signed any pacts with the US government to deliver doses of either vaccine to Americans first, adding it was committed to making its vaccines accessible globally and affordably.
Mark Feinberg, the president and CEO of IAVI, spoke to The World's Marco Werman about IAVI's partnership with Merck.