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Merck buys the rights to an experimental Ebola vaccine

November 24, 2014

ArcelorMittal facilityArcelorMittal facility
A man in Liberia is scanned for fever.Courtesy of ArcelorMittal

By Ransdell Pierson

Merck (MRK) on Monday said it would buy worldwide commercial rights to NewLink Genetics Corp’s experimental vaccine meant to prevent infection with the Ebola virus.

Large late-stage trials of the product could begin early next year, Merck said.

Merck, the No. 2 U.S. drugmaker and one of the world’s biggest makers of vaccines, would be able to speed up and significantly boost production of the product.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which originally developed the rVSV-EBOV vaccine, will retain non-commercial rights. A NewLink subsidiary bought the commercial rights to the product in 2010.

The deal between Merck and NewLink, a tiny biotechnology company based in Ames, Iowa, comes as other drugmakers are also racing to test and scale up production of treatments and preventive vaccines for Ebola, which has killed more than 5,400 people this year.

It is the worst Ebola outbreak on record, according the World Health Organization. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia account for all but 15 of the deaths.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, are conducting early-stage trials of the NewLink vaccine. The trials involve healthy volunteers and are testing whether the vaccine is safe and provokes a protective immune response.

Should those Phase I studies prove favorable, the NIH plans to begin large late-stage trials early next year.

Rival drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc is co-developing its own Ebola vaccine with the NIH and plans to build a stockpile of thousands of doses for emergency deployment, if results are good.