As Moderna doubles down on vaccines, Merck pulls out of a long-running collaboration
In the wake of their Covid-19 effort, Moderna is doubling down on vaccines for infectious disease, but they announced today they’ll be doing so without one of their longtime partners.
In one of a flurry of announcements Thursday morning, the Cambridge biotech announced that Merck has ceded back rights to the adult respiratory syncytial virus vaccine the pair had been co-developing. One of two different candidates Moderna was helping push forward in a hotly competitive space, the vaccine had entered Phase I last year. Merck will complete that trial before formally handing it over, giving Moderna rights to both a vaccine for adults and infants.
The NJ pharma, meanwhile, will continue on an RSV program, pushing forward on an antibody that is now in Phase II. On a conference call with investors, Moderna president Stephen Hoge said he could only speculate on Merck’s reasoning, but he noted that there’s a tight race for RSV inoculations, with other companies already ahead. Most notably, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have programs in Phase II and Phase III.
Hoge called their co-developed vaccine a “late-entrant.”
“RSV is a pretty competitive space,” Hoge said. “If you’re going to bring an RSV forward, it has to either be dramatically better in RSV, or it has to have other [qualities].”
Asked for comment, a Merck spokesperson simply said they had decided to focus their efforts on the antibody program. Company scientists described that antibody in Nature Communications last year, although they too face steep competition; AstraZeneca has had an antibody on the market for 2 decades and they are now developing a new one with Sanofi.
Although Moderna emphasized it was early and they needed to assess how they would move forward, Hoge noted one way they hoped to stand apart.
As the company’s vaccine portfolio expanded over the last decade, most recently with flu and coronavirus, they have talked about the potential of creating a single, combined respiratory shot, similar to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine children have received for decades. For example, someone who is at higher risk of complications from infection could be inoculated against flu, Covid-19, RSV and Human metapneumovirus and parainfluenza virus — a seasonal virus that can be dangerous for infants and the elderly — in one jab.
“There are multiple vaccines that are further ahead in pipelines in large pharmaceutical combines,” Hoge said. “From a strategic perspective, from our viewpoint, it would make more sense to come forward with a differentiated vaccine that combines multiple different viruses.”
RSV is a respiratory virus that can be dangerous or even deadly for infants and the elderly. The only way to treat or prevent it is with the AstraZeneca antibody, which is expensive and only prescribed for high-risk infants. Numerous companies have tried to develop a vaccine, but it has been particularly difficult to do so for infants, because the mother has to be inoculated and pass the antibodies onto the child. Four years before its Covid-19 program, Novavax mounted a major effort to develop a vaccine for infants that failed, tanking the stock price, although some studies have still shown encouraging signs.
Moderna also announced Thursday that the company began dosing in a Phase I study on their RSV candidate for infants. They said the new arrangement will allow them to move forward with a vaccine that’s encased in their own lipid nanoparticle, rather than Merck’s. They noted they had far more data supporting that LNP than Merck’s, which has virtually only been used in the RSV study.
The two companies’ collaboration on cancer remains unaffected.