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Merck Inks Deals, Joins Coronavirus Vaccine Race

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Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK) on Tuesday announced deals, including an acquisition and two collaborations that will enable the U.S. drugmaker to join the race to develop coronavirus vaccines and drugs. Shares of Merck were rising almost 4 percent in the pre-market.

Merck said it has agreed to acquire privately-held Themis, an Austria-based company focused on vaccines and immune-modulation therapies for infectious diseases and cancer. Themis' COVID-19 vaccine candidate is in pre-clinical development, with clinical studies planned to start later in 2020.

Under terms of the deal, a subsidiary of Merck will acquire all outstanding shares of Themis in exchange for an undisclosed cash payment. Themis will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Merck on completion of the deal.

Themis has developed a pipeline of vaccine candidates and immune-modulatory therapies using its imeasles virus vector platform based on a vector originally developed by scientists at the Institut Pasteur, a European vaccine research institute. The measles virus vector platform is licensed exclusively to Themis for select viral indications.

In March, Themis said it is collaborating with the Institut Pasteur and the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, to develop a coronavirus vaccine candidate.

The project was supported by funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations or CEPI. Merck said it will join the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine program originated by Themis.

Merck also announced a new collaboration with IAVI, a non-profit science research organization, to develop another coronavirus vaccine.

This vaccine candidate will use the recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus or rVSV technology that is the basis for Merck's Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, ERVEBO, which was the first rVSV vaccine approved for use in humans.

The vaccine candidate is in pre-clinical development, with clinical studies are planned to start later in 2020. Merck said it will lead regulatory filings globally.

In addition, Merck has entered into a collaboration agreement with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP to develop EIDD-2801, an orally available antiviral candidate currently in early clinical development for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Miami, Florida-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is a privately held, majority woman-owned biotechnology company.

Under the terms of the deal, Merck will gain exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize EIDD-2801 and related molecules.

Ridgeback Bio will receive an undisclosed upfront payment, specified milestones, and a share of the net proceeds of EIDD-2801 and related molecules if approved. Merck will be responsible for the clinical development, regulatory filings and manufacturing of the antiviral.

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