Merck drops out of coronavirus vaccine development race
By Ramon Tomey // Feb 08, 2021

American drug manufacturer Merck dropped its bid to develop a vaccine against the Wuhan coronavirus. The firm announced the cessation of its COVID-19 vaccine program after its two candidates did not trigger strong immune responses. It said that phase one trials showed responses that did not reach the level elicited by earlier approved vaccines although there were no significant safety issues reported.


Merck Research Laboratories President Dr. Dean Li said the firm remained resolute in its commitment "to contribute to the global effort to relieve the burden of this pandemic." As such, it will now shift its efforts to developing drugs to treat COVID-19 – with two medications in the works.

The first drug aims to treat inflammation experienced by patients with severe cases. Merck has a $365 million deal with the U.S. government to sell the drug if it receives emergency use authorization. The second drug is an antiviral medication developed in partnership with Florida-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. If approved, the antiviral drug could be the first oral therapeutic that patients can take outside the hospital. The antiviral is currently undergoing phase two and three clinical trials, which Ridgeback started in June 2020.

Prior to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, Merck had a number of successes in the field of vaccines. It had developed a mumps vaccine in a record time of four years, created the first ebola vaccine which obtained regulatory approval in the U.S. and launched an anti-cervical cancer vaccine. But it was unable to replicate its earlier achievements at the onset of the pandemic.

Merck's absence in the vaccine race led to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA jabs for COVID-19 receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both candidates reported an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent in clinical trials.

Merck's abandonment of its coronavirus vaccine project also impacted France

The American pharmaceutical firm's abandonment of its Wuhan coronavirus vaccine also impacted France. One of Merck's COVID-19 vaccines was developed alongside Institut Pasteur, France's top biomedical research body. It delivered a weakened form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus using a measles vaccine. Scientists had hoped the mechanism would make vaccine production easier and cheaper, as many facilities manufacturing measles vaccines already exist.

Meanwhile, leading French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi hit a roadblock in its COVID-19 vaccine development. Sanofi developed the vaccine in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Phase two trials for its jab held in December 2020 failed because of a dosing error, which meant it had to repeat the study.

The delay meant that Sanofi would be unlikely to bring its Wuhan coronavirus vaccine candidate to the market until the end of the year. As a result, it is now studying whether it can manufacture vaccines for rival producers under contract.

French politicians and public health experts lamented the weakness of the country's pharmaceutical sector following the failure of the Merck-Pasteur vaccine. France remains without a domestic vaccine producer.

SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges commented that GSK and Merck – two of the four largest vaccine firms – dropping out of the COVID-19 vaccine race was not encouraging news. "This makes the results from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax even more important," he added. The two firms are also developing their own COVID-19 vaccines.

Drug manufacturers are now eyeing the development of COVID-19 medications

Given its cessation of vaccine development, Merck is now directing its efforts to manufacture drugs to treat COVID-19. Other pharmaceutical firms have followed suit, eyeing the creation of drugs for COVID-19 and its effects.

Following the approval and widespread use of its Wuhan coronavirus jab, British company AstraZeneca has kicked off the development of an antibody medication. Bloomberg reported that it began advanced trials in October 2020. Antibody medications such as AstraZeneca's drug mimic natural antibodies in humans and could potentially address the negative effects of COVID-19 in infected patients.

Another American drug manufacturer has developed an antibody medication for COVID-19 – which the FDA approved. Eli Lilly suspended trials for its antibody drug bamlanivimab in October following safety concerns. The following month, the FDA gave bamlanivimab the green light for emergency use. The experimental drug is a one-time treatment administered intravenously.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is another company aiming to make a COVID-19 antibody medication. Its polyclonal antibody cocktail was among the treatments former President Donald Trump received during his bout with COVID-19. The company touted the effects of the treatment in a press release, saying that the antibody cocktail "reduced viral load and the time to alleviate symptoms" of non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. (Related: Trump physician says president has developed COVID-19 antibodies.)

Visit to find out more about the race to develop Wuhan coronavirus jabs.

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