Merck steps into Ebola vaccine race with NewLink rights deal

Ebolavirus under an electron microscope--Courtesy of CDC

Merck has snapped up the exclusive rights to NewLink Genetics' Ebola vaccine, which is being rushed into a Phase III study as part of a global effort to head off an outbreak in West Africa.

Just days ago Bloomberg reported that Ames, IA-based NewLink ($NLNK) was in discussions with Merck ($MRK), which already has the technology in place to quickly ramp up large-scale production. In classic Merck fashion, none of the financial details were discussed in its release.

In the deal Merck gains the rights to the biotech's rVSV-EBOV vaccine candidate as well as any follow-on products in the pipeline. The move puts Merck, a big player in the vaccines industry, in the same field with GlaxoSmithKline and J&J, two other pharma giants rushing ahead with their own Ebola vaccine candidates. Merck currently is using its Vero technology to make RotaTeq and plans to add this new vaccine to the lineup.

Canadian officials, who originally developed this vaccine, currently have the jab in a trial while NewLink continues its own Phase I trial at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. The NIH is gearing up for an emergency late-stage trial in Africa, which has been grappling with a lethal outbreak that has killed thousands and triggered headlines and panic around the globe.

NewLink originally obtained this vaccine from Canadian officials back in 2010 for a mere $200,000. But as the Ebola crisis spread some of the original scientists involved began to push the company to pass it on to a larger company that could produce this vaccine in large quantities, according to a report in Merck evidently fits that bill, with University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran telling reporters that "Merck is an outstanding partner."

Merck once owned Okairos, which has been developing a new Ebola vaccine for GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), but spun it out in 2007. The 2012 Fierce 15 company was subsequently acquired by GlaxoSmithKline for $324 million last year. A number of biotechs, meanwhile, have been pursuing their own programs. Mapp in San Diego has a treatment for Ebola in development, along with Sarepta and others.

"Merck's vaccine development expertise, commercial leadership and history of successful strategic alliances make it an ideal partner to expedite the development of rVSV-EBOV and, if demonstrated to be efficacious and well-tolerated, to make it available to individuals and communities at risk of Ebola virus infection around the world," noted Dr. Charles Link, chairman and chief executive officer of NewLink Genetics.

- here's the release