Merck joins Seattle consortium to uncover COVID-19's molecular workings

Merck & Co. has begun working with the non-profit Institute for Systems Biology and a consortium of companies to investigate the molecular mechanisms behind the novel coronavirus, in a bid to identify new targets for medicines and vaccines.

The Big Pharma’s efforts have also received financial support from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA. The results will be made available publicly.

Late last month, the ISB launched a study with health workers from Swedish Medical Center, also based in the institute’s hometown of Seattle, to explore why certain COVID-19 patients die or require intensive care while others may show no symptoms at all. Both the ISB and Swedish are part of the Providence St. Joseph Health network.

“By applying the full power of our systems biology capabilities, we hope to gain important insights into the molecular basis for the dramatically contrasting outcomes observed for patients infected with SARS-CoV-2,” ISB President Jim Heath said in a statement.

By collecting blood and nasal swabs at different times following a patient’s diagnosis, the researchers plan to amass a large dataset that includes the patients’ genomes, proteomes and metabolomes, plus single-cell analytics of the evolving immune system response and the infection’s effect on different organs.

Other participants in the study include health workers within Providence St. Joseph Health and the Swedish Medical System, as well as collaborators from Stanford University, IsoPlexis, Adaptive Biotechnologies, 10x Genomics, Metabolon and others. 

Merck will provide research funding and work with ISB researchers to find targets for potential interventions, including drugs, antibody therapies and vaccines. The study will initially analyze samples from 200 patients with the potential to expand to 300.

“Understanding the molecular characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and of the immune response to this virus, is essential to the development of effective interventions,” said Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories. “We are eager to advance this work with ISB, and to share our findings with the broader scientific community.”