Merck Covid-19 vaccine begins human testing

Company will look for signs the vaccine generates an immune response to the coronavirus.

Merck & Co. has begun testing one of its experimental Covid-19 vaccine candidates in healthy volunteers.

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The study, located in Belgium and seeking to enroll 260 subjects, was reported by Merck on a government database and confirmed by the company. The company told The Wall Street Journal that dosing in study subjects has begun, but declined to comment further.

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The Phase 1 /2 trial would evaluate the shot in healthy volunteers to make sure it is safe and as look for signs the vaccine generates an immune response to the new coronavirus.

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The study is projected to complete in April 2022, according to the government database clinicaltrials.gov, though it could finish much faster. Several early-stage Covid-19 vaccine trials have produced results within months.

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Merck’s experimental shot contains a weakened version of the virus that causes measles. The weakened measles virus aims to deliver the coronavirus’s spike protein to the immune system to help trigger an immune response to the novel coronavirus, according to Merck.

To develop the vaccine, Merck in May said it was acquiring privately-held Austrian company Themis Bioscience. The vaccine was developed by the French research nonprofit Institut Pasteur and licensed to Themis.

Merck, based in Kenilworth, N.J., is a longtime maker of vaccines and antivirals, including human papillomavirus shot Gardasil.

For Covid-19, the company has said it wanted to develop a vaccine that would provide protection with a single dose so a second shot isn’t needed and uses a proven technology that can be scaled up readily for manufacture.

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Other potential Covid-19 vaccines further along in development than Merck use different technologies. Vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE, and Moderna Inc. use an unproven gene-based technology called mRNA and both also require two shots.

Those vaccines, along with one from AstraZeneca PLC, are in late-stage, or Phase 3, clinical trials seeking to enroll 30,000 subjects in the U.S.

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For its experimental Covid-19 vaccine, Merck plans to test the shot in subjects 18 years to 55 years, and then 60 years and older, according to the government database. It is also testing giving patients one or two doses.

Merck’s second coronavirus vaccine effort is through a partnership with the scientific-research organization IAVI, whose experimental vaccine uses the same technology that is the basis for Merck’s Ebola Zaire virus vaccine. Merck has said that human testing for the trial testing this second vaccine could begin later this year.

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