Merck's Gerberding discusses advantages, challenges of vaccines

Eighteen months ago, Julie Gerberding left her position as CDC director to head up Merck's vaccine unit, which is responsible for making 14 of the 17 vaccines recommended for kids and nine of the 10 shots adults should received. Once an undesirable area of industry, vaccine development has enjoyed an renaissance over the last several years as drugmakers employ new technology to access lucrative markets. In a interview with Xconomy, Gerberding explores the advantages and challenges vaccines present to Big Pharma.

Both pediatric and adult vaccines, explains Gerberding, have long been a part of Merck's strategy. But the pharma company has historically focused its work in the U.S. and Europe. Where she sees new growth for the company is in emerging markets. "We see tremendous unmet need, and tremendous opportunity for Merck to leverage our innovations in ways that bring these products to the kids who need them most," she tells Xconomy. Gerberding adds that access and coverage of under-served populations is the company's top priority.

One of the advantages vaccines offer over small molecule drugs is that they're not subject to patent expirations. "It's not about trying to maximize your unit profitability fast before your patent wears out," notes Gerberding. "With a vaccine, it's about how can we continue to position the product, or evolve the product in its life cycle so that it continues to deliver value to people. That can be forever." She uses the example of Merck's measles vaccine, which is still delivering value despite being developed years ago. Challenges instead come from improving the manufacturing process, which can lead to lower costs and expanded access for in less affluent areas of the world. She notes that regulatory issues often get in the way of improving processes, and calls for regulators to develop a mechanism by which vaccine makers can improve without facing major hurdles.

- read the lengthy Xconomy interview