Merck inks Themis buyout to join COVID-19 vaccine race

Merck has struck a deal to buy Themis to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The takeover will see Merck, a latecomer to the response to SARS-CoV-2, apply its vaccine capabilities to a candidate based on Themis’ measles vector platform that is set to enter the clinic this year.

Themis is developing a pipeline of vaccines based on a measles virus vector platform it licensed from Institut Pasteur. By engineering the virus to express different antigens, Themis aims to use the same vector and manufacturing system to develop vaccines that induce protection against a wide range of infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

“Together with Institut Pasteur, we have worked on very closely related viruses like SARS and MERS [and] demonstrated the platform is very useful in eliciting an immune response,” Themis CEO Erich Tauber said. “We started [SARS-CoV-2] vector design in February. We have started in vivo models ... and are now preparing for clinical trials.”

Merck is now set to apply its vaccine capabilities to the program. The Big Pharma has a major human vaccine operation, which generated sales of $8.4 billion last year, but it stayed on the sidelines in the early days of the pandemic as peers such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sanofi placed bets on COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

News of a change in strategy came late in April when Merck said it was talking to “multiple groups” about three viral vector platforms. The talks manifested in an agreement to buy Themis, a privately owned Austrian biotech, for an undisclosed sum. In selecting Themis as a key plank of its COVID-19 strategy, Merck has indicated it thinks the biotech’s vaccine can clear a high bar.

“The task before us is one that requires a vaccine that will be quite stimulatory and that will yield neutralizing antibodies ideally with a single immunization. Of course, it must first be safe because you're talking about a vaccine that would in principle be given to much of the world's population,” Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, told investors last month.

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Themis, as part of a consortium featuring Institut Pasteur, partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March. Earlier this month, Themis disclosed a deal with service provider ABL Europe covering the production of the vaccine in France.

Merck, which plans to start testing the vaccine in humans this year, has previously said it is trying to identify internal resources and contract manufacturers that can enable it to produce 1 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and plans to make Themis’ shot at sites in the U.S. and Europe. The ability of Merck to bring such scale to bear factored into Themis’ decision to sell up.

“The limiting step for everybody will be manufacturability and manufacturing capacity. Merck brings an enormous skill level, expertise and capacity in terms of manufacturing technology. They're using very similar technology already. They have been manufacturing measles vaccines for 60 years or so,” Tauber said.

Merck bought into the concept behind Themis’ platform last summer when it tasked the biotech with developing vaccines against an undisclosed target and invested in its series C round. Now, Merck has decided to acquire its partner outright.

The takeover will give Merck ownership of the platform, which Themis thinks has immuno-oncology applications, and a pipeline led by a phase 3-ready chikungunya vaccine candidate. Merck also sees the acquisition as a way to “ build a pandemic preparedness capability” against future threats.

For now though, COVID-19 is the focus. Merck and CEPI have entered into a memorandum of understanding about the need to make the vaccine “accessible to those who need it, including low-income, middle-income and high-income countries, based on the medical need.” Tauber raised Merck’s approach to vaccine access in explaining why it is the right partner, citing the Big Pharma’s work on Ebola as evidence that it is “very enthusiastic about global supply of vaccines.”