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.
Marco Werman: Dr. Feinberg, what does this partnership indicate in terms of whether either entity will make money off of this vaccine?
Mark Feinberg: Well, really, I think both organizations are doing this specifically to address the public health need. It's not an intention to generate a profit.
So does that suggest that the vaccine that Merck and IAVI create will be patent-free?
Well, I think the issue is not intellectual property or patents. The issue is really [what are] the efforts are that go into making a candidate vaccine available in an affordable and accessible way to everyone who needs it. As you know, we're facing a challenge that the world has never seen before. You know, many, many billions of doses are going to need to be made of the vaccine if we're going to truly have a chance of eradicating this pandemic. And not only does that mean that public sector and private sector partners really each have a responsibility to engage in solving that challenge, but it's going to require totally new models of partnership. And really no one organization can do it alone, which is, I think, why the Merck and IAVI partnership is but one example of many. I think it also speaks to the fact that even one company or one vaccine is likely not going to solve the problem, that we probably will need multiple vaccines that are demonstrated to be safe and efficacious.
The main question here, Dr. Feinberg, though, is for-profit companies have a right to make money. I mean, they're in business and there is money involved here. So who's making it?
Well, I think it's too early to comment on any potential to generate a profit. But, you know, having worked at Merck for over a decade and, you know, now running an organization that is specifically intended to meet the needs of the world's poorest people and do that in a manner where we don't profit, I mean, I think both of our organizations are primarily focused on addressing the global health threat before us.
How does the effort between IAVI, your organization, and Merck differ from the nearly 100 other efforts out there to create a vaccine?
Well, one really important element for both us and Merck is ... the Merck success with the Ebola vaccine development. That vaccine is highly efficacious against a really terrible disease, and Merck, through a tremendous effort, brought that vaccine to licensure by the leading regulatory authorities, the FDA, the EMA [European Medicines Agency] in Europe, as well as a number of African regulatory authorities. And it's been pre-qualified by the WHO, which is their stamp of approval.
How far along are IAVI and Merck on creating a vaccine for the coronavirus? And will you be doing human trials first?
Well, we are still in preclinical stages and we're working as quickly as we possibly can to get into clinical trials. But as you know, there are a number of steps that are necessary that best protects the volunteers who participate in those studies. Our hope is to move as quickly as possible to generate the foundation to support clinical investigation. And we hope to be initiating clinical trials by the fourth quarter of this year.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed reporting.