U.S. pharma giant Merck is shuttering its Covid-19 vaccine program and will shift its focus to advancing two treatments for the disease after early results from clinical trials showed both vaccines it has in development were unable to generate adequate immune responses, a decision that may add to growing worries that there is not be enough vaccines to go around.
Both Merck vaccines generated immune responses “inferior to those seen following natural infection”, as well as lower responses reported for with other Covid-19 vaccines on the market, Merck said in a statement Monday.
“We are grateful to our collaborators who worked with us on these vaccine candidates and to the volunteers in the trials,” said Dr. Dean Y. Li, president of Merck Research Laboratories, adding that the company is “resolute in our commitment to contribute to the global effort to relieve the burden of this pandemic on patients, health care systems and communities.”
Merck will now focus on developing two experimental drugs to treat Covid-19 — an antiviral pill and a protein targeting the inflammatory response to the coronavirus — and continue its research into vaccine vector platforms.
The results from both clinical trials will be submitted for publication, the company said, and the company will record an undisclosed pretax discontinuation charge in the last quarter of 2020.
Merck, a global vaccine leader, was relatively slow to enter the Covid-19 vaccine race and neither of its candidates were a part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative intended to speed up development. Nevertheless, the departure of such a major player will likely be a disappointment, especially with concerns mounting around the world that demand for vaccines is vastly outstripping supply.
Nick Kartsonis, senior vice president of clinical research for infectious diseases and vaccines at Merck Research Laboratories told Bloomberg the results were “disappointing, and a bit of a surprise.”