U.S. drugmaker Merck on Tuesday said it plans to work alongside nonprofit scientific research organization IAVI to develop a potential vaccine against the coronavirus.
The news helped send Merck shares up about 3% during the premarket.
The announcement comes as drugmakers pause other clinical trials and scramble to find an antidote for Covid-19, which has infected more than 5.5 million people worldwide and killed over 346,000.
Most experts agree could take 12 to 18 months to roll out a safe vaccine to the market. And, even if an effective vaccine becomes available, many have warned of significant logistical challenges around distributing enough doses for the global population.
In a statement, Merck and IAVI said their vaccine candidate would use the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus technology that is the basis for its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine — which was the first rVSV vaccine approved for use in humans.
Ebola Zaire is one of six known species within the genus Ebola virus, an acute deadly illness. The virus causing the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the 2014 to 2016 West African outbreak, belongs to the Ebola Zaire virus species, according to the World Health Organization.
Designed and engineered by IAVI scientists in New York, the vaccine candidate for Covid-19 is in preclinical development. Clinical studies are expected to start this year.
If approved, Merck said both organizations would work together to develop the vaccine and “make it accessible and affordable” worldwide.
Last month, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was important that, when a vaccine is ready, it could be equitably distributed across the globe.
“There should not be a divide between the haves and the have-nots,” he stressed.
‘Operation Warp Speed’
President Donald Trump has voiced ambitions for a vaccine to be developed and distributed by the end of 2020, in a project called “Operation Warp Speed.”
However, medical experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert — have cast doubt on Trump’s goal, expressing skepticism over the time frame.
Dr. Mark Feinberg, IAVI president and CEO, said the rVSV-based vaccine strategy represented a “promising approach to combating the novel coronavirus pandemic.”
Merck and IAVI said the rVSV vaccine platform uses an attenuated strain of vesicular stomatitis virus, a common animal virus that has been modified to express proteins that stimulate an immune response.
The plan, they continued, was to “leverage experience” gained with this platform during the development of Merck’s rVSV-based vaccine for Ebola Zaire.
Separately, Merck said it plans to acquire privately held Themis, a company focused on vaccines and immune-modulation therapies for infectious diseases and cancer, for an undisclosed cash payment.
Upon completion of the deal, Themis would then become a wholly owned subsidiary of Merck.