Af­ter bail­ing on Covid-19 vac­cines, Mer­ck will team up with J&J to pro­duce its shot as part of un­usu­al Big Phar­ma pact

Mer­ck took a big gam­ble when it opt­ed to jump in­to the Covid-19 vac­cine race late, and made an equal­ly mo­men­tous de­ci­sion to back out in late Jan­u­ary. Now, look­ing to chip in on the ef­fort, Mer­ck re­port­ed­ly agreed to team up with one of the com­pa­nies that has al­ready crossed the fin­ish line.

Pres­i­dent Joe Biden on Tues­day is ex­pect­ed to an­nounce a part­ner­ship be­tween drug­mak­ers Mer­ck and John­son & John­son to joint­ly pro­duce J&J’s re­com­bi­nant vi­ral vec­tor Covid-19 vac­cine that re­ceived the FDA’s emer­gency use au­tho­riza­tion Sat­ur­day, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­port­ed.

Un­der the terms of the deal, which un­named of­fi­cials out­lined for the Post, Mer­ck will pro­duce J&J’s sin­gle-shot vac­cine at two fa­cil­i­ties. One of those will han­dle fill-fin­ish work — the last stage be­fore dis­tri­b­u­tion — and an­oth­er will pro­duce bulk drug sub­stance for the shot, like­ly af­ter a tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer. Of­fi­cials told the Post the deal would po­ten­tial­ly dou­ble J&J’s pro­duc­tion ca­pac­i­ty, a mas­sive win giv­en the drug­mak­er’s re­port­ed man­u­fac­tur­ing bot­tle­neck.

With­out the Mer­ck deal in place, J&J ex­pect­ed to roll out about 100 mil­lion vac­cine dos­es be­fore the back half of the year and hoped to churn out enough sup­ply to vac­ci­nate 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans by the end of March.

It’s a Big Phar­ma team-up on­ly con­ceiv­able dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and comes af­ter Mer­ck de­cid­ed to bow out of the race for its own Covid-19 vac­cine af­ter mak­ing a very late en­try.

In late Jan­u­ary, Mer­ck dropped de­vel­op­ment of 2 vac­cines — V590 and V591 — af­ter tak­ing a look at Phase I da­ta that un­der­per­formed in terms of drum­ming up an im­mune re­sponse. Mer­ck didn’t re­veal full de­tails on both vac­cines’ fail­ing da­ta, but the FDA did in­di­cate it would con­sid­er ap­prov­ing any ef­fi­ca­cy above 50% for emer­gency use giv­en the enor­mous de­mand.

Now, with its ta­ble cleared, Mer­ck will piv­ot over to help­ing pro­duce J&J’s shot. Un­like the mR­NA vac­cines from Pfiz­er/BioN­Tech and Mod­er­na, J&J’s shot us­es re­com­bi­nant DNA de­liv­ered by an ade­n­ovirus vec­tor and can be stored at re­frig­er­at­ed temps for longer pe­ri­ods of time. The tech­nol­o­gy is old-school by mR­NA stan­dards, and Mer­ck should be fa­mil­iar with the pro­duc­tion de­mands giv­en its long stand­ing in the vac­cine field.

More­over, J&J’s shot on­ly re­quires one dose rather than the two-dose reg­i­men for Pfiz­er and Mod­er­na. That means even a mid-scale boost in pro­duc­tion could be a force mul­ti­pli­er in terms of pa­tients vac­ci­nat­ed.

The fi­nan­cial terms of the deal weren’t re­port­ed by the Post, and of­fi­cials said it would take about two months for Mer­ck’s fill-fin­ish plant to be up and run­ning. Get­ting the ac­tu­al pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ty on track would take a few ad­di­tion­al months af­ter that, an of­fi­cial said.

J&J’s shot earned the FDA’s trust with just 66% ef­fi­ca­cy in its piv­otal tri­al in pre­vent­ing mild and se­vere Covid-19. How­ev­er, in terms of pre­vent­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and death, the shot per­formed much bet­ter, ef­fec­tive­ly show­ing 100% pro­tec­tion 28 days af­ter vac­ci­na­tion.

For a look at all End­points News coro­n­avirus sto­ries, check out our spe­cial news chan­nel.

BY­OD Best Prac­tices: How Mo­bile De­vice Strat­e­gy Leads to More Pa­tient-Cen­tric Clin­i­cal Tri­als

Some of the most time- and cost-consuming components of clinical research center on gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. To improve efficiency, many clinical trial sponsors have shifted to electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA), including electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) tools.

In most cases, patients enter data using apps installed on provisioned devices. At a time when 81% of Americans own a smartphone, why not use the device they rely on every day?

Voting in the 2020 election (AP Images)

The right to vote is fun­da­men­tal — a let­ter from biotech­nol­o­gy in­dus­try lead­ers

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to senior editors Kyle Blankenship and Amber Tong.

We oppose all attempts to introduce laws that reduce the rights of US citizens to vote or that restrict them from exercising that right. The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. States that have enacted, or are proposing to enact, legislation to restrict voting are undermining our democracy and posing a threat to our nation. As leaders of the life sciences industry, we stand for what we believe is right for our country, our enterprises, our employees and those who benefit from our work. We join the first groups of business leaders who have challenged these laws and will continue to make our collective voices heard on this matter.

Covid-19 roundup: No­vavax shakes up lead­er­ship with two pro­mo­tions and de­par­ture of CFO; Mod­er­na, No­vavax shots added to mix-and-match study in the UK

Novavax has had a busy month, filled with supply chain issues and manufacturing deals that have affected the rollout of its Covid-19 vaccine. Tuesday, the company announced updates to its leadership team.

CFO Greg Covino will step down from that role after just five months for personal reasons, the release said, but take on a new role as executive advisor. John Trizzino, current chief commercial officer and chief business officer, will take the CFO role over in the interim.

UP­DAT­ED: J&J paus­es vac­cine roll­out as feds probe rare cas­es of blood clots

The FDA and CDC have jointly decided to stop administering J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine after reviewing data involving six reported US cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in individuals after receiving the vaccine.

CDC will convene a meeting of its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Wednesday to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. “FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these cases. Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research and Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, said in a joint statement Tuesday morning.

Pascal Soriot (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

Af­ter be­ing goad­ed to sell the com­pa­ny, Alex­ion's CEO set some am­bi­tious new goals for in­vestors. Then Pas­cal So­ri­ot came call­ing

Back in the spring of 2020, Alexion $ALXN CEO Ludwig Hantson was under considerable pressure to perform and had been for months. Elliott Advisers had been applying some high public heat on the biotech’s numbers. And in reaching out to some major stockholders, one thread of advice came through loud and clear: Sell the company or do something dramatic to change the narrative.

In the words of the rather dry SEC filing that offers a detailed backgrounder on the buyout deal, Alexion stated: ‘During the summer and fall of 2020, Alexion also continued to engage with its stockholders, and in these interactions, several stockholders encouraged the company to explore strategic alternatives.’

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Launched by MIT grads, a small start­up gets $20M to back a ro­bot­ics rev­o­lu­tion in cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing

As co-director of an experimental cellular therapy process development and manufacturing group at UCSF specializing in T cell therapies for autoimmune conditions, Jonathan Esensten has learned a lot about the challenges involved when his group hand-fashions a cell therapy. Esensten — who was a postdoc in Wendell Lim’s lab and counts the legendary Jeffrey Bluestone as a mentor — gives them all high marks at being great at what they do, but time and again there are variations in the treatments they construct.

Sajith Wickramasekara, Benchling via YouTube

Meet Bench­ling, the lat­est uni­corn seek­ing to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way sci­en­tists do work with the help of the cloud

There’s another unicorn in biotech land, as Benchling and its leading R&D cloud platform pull in a $200 million Series E to help scientists accelerate drug development. In doing so, the company hit a lofty $4 billion valuation — nearly five times what it was worth around this time last year, according to Forbes.

Despite the fact that drug development is becoming significantly more complex, the industry continues to run on paper, emails and spreadsheets, co-founder and CEO Sajith Wickramasekara said in a video on Benchling’s website. The MIT grad sought to change that by creating software that allows scientists to better track, model and forecast their work.

Amy­lyx to move for­ward with ALS pro­gram in Eu­rope, but FDA wants an­oth­er look; Hu­ma­cyte adds $50M in debt fi­nanc­ing

Amylyx is one of several companies looking to break through in the tough ALS field, and Wednesday they announced they’re moving forward with regulatory plans.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech said they’re submitting a marketing application to the EMA for their AMX0035 program by the end of 2021. Wednesday’s news comes a few weeks after they revealed similar plans to move forward with Canadian health regulators by June 30.

Near­ly a year af­ter Au­den­tes' gene ther­a­py deaths, the tri­al con­tin­ues. What hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery

Natalie Holles was five months into her tenure as Audentes CEO and working to smooth out a $3 billion merger when the world crashed in.

Holles and her team received word on the morning of May 5 that, hours before, a patient died in a trial for their lead gene therapy. They went into triage mode, alerting the FDA, calling trial investigators to begin to understand what happened, and, the next day, writing a letter to alert the patient community so they would be the first to know. “We wanted to be as forthright and transparent as possible,” Holles told me late last month.

The brief letter noted two other patients also suffered severe reactions after receiving a high dose of the therapy and were undergoing treatment. One died a month and a half later, at which point news of the deaths became public, jolting an emergent gene therapy field and raising questions about the safety of the high doses Audentes and others were now using. The third patient died in August.

“It was deeply saddening,” Holles said. “But I was — we were — resolute and determined to understand what happened and learn from it and get back on track.”

Eleven months have now passed since the first death and the therapy, a potential cure for a rare and fatal muscle-wasting disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy, is back on track, the FDA having cleared the company to resume dosing at a lower level. Audentes itself is no more; last month, Japanese pharma giant Astellas announced it had completed working out the kinks of the $3 billion merger and had restructured and rebranded the subsidiary as Astellas Gene Therapies. Holles, having successfully steered both efforts, departed.

Still, questions about precisely what led to the deaths of the 3 boys still linger. Trial investigators released key details about the case last August and December, pointing to a biological landmine that Audentes could not have seen coming — a moment of profound medical misfortune. In an emerging field that’s promised cures for devastating diseases but also seen its share of safety setbacks, the cases provided a cautionary tale.

Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

Yet some researchers say they’re still waiting on Astellas to release more data. The company has yet to publish a full paper detailing what happened, nor have they indicated that they will. In the meantime, it remains unclear what triggered the events and how to prevent them in the future.

“Since Audentes was the first one and we don’t have additional information, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, flying around, waiting to figure out how to land our vehicles,” said Jude Samulski, professor of pharmacology at UNC’s Gene Therapy Center and CSO of the gene therapy biotech AskBio, now a subsidiary of Bayer.

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