MSD Enters Covid-19 Vaccine Race by Acquiring Themis Bioscience

The US-based big pharma MSD has entered the race to be the first to develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19 by acquiring Austrian biotech Themis Bioscience and its vaccine technology for an undisclosed amount.

MSD has been a bit slower than some of its contemporaries to announce its plans regarding a potential treatment or vaccine for Covid-19. But its silence on this front ended this week with the acquisition of Themis Bioscience, which comes with the Austrian biotech’s vaccine candidate for Covid-19. The vaccine, developed as part of a collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, consists of a measles viral vector programmed to produce antigens of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19, called SARS-CoV-2.

In addition, MSD also announced this week that it will partner with the US-based non-profit research organization IAVI to develop a different Covid-19 vaccine candidate using the same technology as that used in MSD’s Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, which was approved by the FDA in late 2019. It will also work with US biotech Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to develop Ridgeback’s early-stage antiviral candidate to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

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This acquisition follows on from a partnership launched between Themis and MSD to develop ‘undisclosed vaccine candidates’ in August 2019.  

“The team at MSD has known about our platform and its potential for some time now,” Themis CEO Erich Tauber, told me. “The acquisition combines the complementary strengths of Themis’ unique research expertise with the measles virus vector, originally developed at Institut Pasteur in France, and MSD’s extensive infectious disease and vaccine capabilities.”

In addition to its Covid-19 vaccine candidate, which should enter clinical trials later this year, Themis is developing vaccine candidates for a number of infectious diseases such as Lassa fever. It also has some immuno-oncology therapies in preclinical development.

Themis’ most advanced candidate is a vaccine for the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya. The company had originally planned to start a phase III trial of its vaccine candidate at the end of last year, but Covid-19 has meant a change of direction.

“In the pandemic crisis that we are facing, we are prioritizing our efforts on developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2,” explained Tauber. “The late-stage development of our Chikungunya vaccine candidate will be parked for now.”

Themis will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of MSD. According to Tauber, the specific integration plans for the two companies have yet to be decided.

There has been much debate about how soon a vaccine for Covid-19 will be approved and on the market. Traditionally vaccines take a long time to develop, but the current pandemic has seen many possible candidates being developed in record time. As one of the most advanced examples, the US biotech Moderna plans to begin phase III testing in summer of a Covid-19 vaccine that it first designed in January.

While Themis’ approach is not as novel, or as advanced, as some of the other options being developed, it may have the advantage that it uses a known and tested platform.

“Vaccine development is a very complex and expensive process and there are several steps to ensure safety as well as efficacy as we move towards regulatory approval of a vaccine,” commented Tauber.

“Only time will tell how fast we can be, but I believe the industry will surprise us in what is possible compared to prior vaccine development timelines. Being able to respond quickly in a crisis situation such as a pandemic is critical to save lives.”


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