Merck, slower than its peers, edges into COVID-19 fight

Almost all of Merck’s Big Pharma peers have either on their own or, increasingly, with a partner, geared up to fight the good fight against COVID-19.

Up until this week Merck, however, has been conspicuously absent from this call; but, in its first-quarter report today, the pharma announced that it is, slowly, looking to join the battle.

The Big Pharma, which reported its financials alongside Pfizer and Novartis Tuesday morning, said it has “embarked upon a broad-based development program for SARS-CoV-2,” the virus causing COVID-19.

Merck says it has “teams of scientists” scanning its antiviral candidates and vaccine assets “for potential to impact COVID-19,” adding it has “been thoughtful” in selecting proven vaccines that could help stop the disease.

It’s also been quietly talking with “multiple groups” for three different viral vaccine platforms. “The details of those collaborations will be announced when the necessary arrangements are finalized,” it said Tuesday morning.   

On Merck’s call with analysts and journalists this morning, its R&D chief Roger Perlmutter said on COVID-19: “We are tasked with creating a new vaccine in a 10th of the time and must manufacture at 1,000 times the scale" as compared with the company's Ebola project. He said, however, despite the challenges his company was approaching the program with “enthusiasm but also with humility.”

He added that this was the “most challenging” vaccine initiative ever undertaken.

Merck is also focusing on antiviral therapies, looking into compounds in its own labs and has “identified programs in other laboratories that could prove beneficial.” No more details were given.

This comes a day after it penned a deal with the Institute for Systems Biology to understand the molecular mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19, with the plan to seek out new targets for medicines and vaccines.

In terms of its trials, Merck said it was “making every effort” to make sure patients enrolled in its tests are able to continue their treatment. It added that while conditions are “fluid and evolving,” it is still enrolling patients in ongoing studies while also starting new studies.