Merck & Co. adds to COVID-19 pipeline via purchase of OncoImmune

Merck & Co. entered into an agreement to acquire all outstanding shares of OncoImmune for an upfront payment of $425 million in cash, further bolstering its pipeline of potential COVID-19 therapies, the companies reported Monday. Through the deal, Merck will gain OncoImmune's lead therapeutic candidate CD24Fc, a recombinant fusion protein targeting the innate immune system that is under development as a potential treatment for patients with severe and critical COVID-19.

Under the transaction, which is expected to close by year-end, OncoImmune shareholders are eligible for undisclosed milestone- and sales-based payments. In addition, OncoImmune will spin-off certain rights and assets unrelated to the CD24Fc programme to a new entity owned by existing shareholders before the acquisition is finalised, with Merck investing $50 million and becoming a minority shareholder in it, the companies added.

Positive interim data

OncoImmune recently reported an interim analysis of CD24Fc on data from 203 hospitalised COVID-19 patients randomised in the Phase III SAC-COVID study. The trial involves patients who need oxygen support, including those on supplemental oxygen, high-flow oxygen and mechanical ventilation.

Findings reported in September showed that patients treated with standard care plus a single dose of CD24Fc were 60% more likely to see improvement in their clinical status, compared to placebo and standard of care, with the median time to recovery being six days and 10 days, respectively. Meanwhile, the risk of death or respiratory failure was cut by more than half. Results also suggested that patients given CD24Fc saw faster recovery times when combined with other therapeutics against COVID-19 such as Gilead Sciences' Veklury (remdesivir) and/or corticosteroids, including dexamethasone, compared to either of those alone. Detailed results will be submitted for publication in a medical journal.

"Recent clinical investigations support the view that CD24Fc may provide benefit beyond standard-of-care therapy for COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen support, and hence will represent an important addition to the Merck pipeline," remarked Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories. He indicated that Merck plans to shift some of its manufacturing capacity to start making the drug, saying the company is aiming for "before the middle of next year, and ideally much before that," for there to be ample supply. CD24Fc is also being assessed in a late-stage study for prophylaxis of graft-versus-host disease.

Follows recent deals with Themis, Ridgeback

Merck has built out its portfolio of COVID-19 medicines through a series of deals in recent months, including via the acquisition of Themis Bioscience and a partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. The portfolio also includes two vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 as well as the licensing of an oral antiviral candidate. Merck began testing one of its vaccine candidates in healthy volunteers in September, later than some of its counterparts, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, who are already reporting Phase III data.

For related analysis, see ViewPoints: Merck & Co. seeks out the path more travelled for its COVID-19 efforts.

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