Merck Spends $425 Million to Acquire OncoImmune’s COVID-19 Therapy

On November 23rd, Merck announced they would acquire the company OncoImmune, to add CD24Fc, a first-in-class recombinant fusion protein, to their toolbox to fight COVID-19. CD24Fc was recently showed to reduce the risk of death for severe and critical COVID-19 patients by more than 50%. With this acquisition, Merck adds another promising therapeutic to their products to combat the pandemic. They are currently on clinical trials for two vaccine candidates as well as an anti-viral drug.

At the time of writing, there have been over 12.2 million confirmed cases and almost 257,000 deaths in the US since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the positive news from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, and AstraZeneca regarding the efficacy of their vaccines, they will not be available to the general public immediately. According to Alex Azar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, vaccines should be available to the general public by April 2021. However, this is an estimate, and even if it is available in Spring, it could take months for enough people to get vaccinated to stop the pandemic. For this reason, more therapies that treat severely ill patients are necessary.

Merck acquired OncoImmune for an upfront cash payment of $425 million. As per the terms of the agreement, OncoImmune will spin-out certain rights and assets into a new company. Merck will invest $50 million in this new company and become a minority shareholder. Besides, the shareholders of OncoImmune are eligible to receive sales payments and payments contingent on regulatory milestones for CD24Fc.

CD24Fc Clinical Trial

CD24Fc is a fusion protein that reduces the activity of inflammatory proteins. It is believed to modulate the inflammatory response by binding to inflammatory stimulants known as DAMPS (Danger-Associated Molecular Patterns), as well as by binding to the Siglec 10 receptor, which suppresses pro-inflammatory molecules. 

Infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, causes the body to produce too many inflammatory proteins. This leads to a loss of immune regulation, which contributes to a more severe and lethal outcome. Due to its ability to suppress inflammatory molecules, CD24Fc was investigated as a possible treatment for COVID-19 patients.

Treatment with CD24Fc resulted in a 60% higher probability of improvement compared to placebo. Additionally, CD24Fc reduced the risk of death and respiratory failure by more than 50%. The safety and efficacy of this therapy were tested on a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 clinical trial. The trail consisted of 203 hospitalized COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen support.

 “Meaningful new therapeutic options are desperately needed for possibly millions of people around the world who will develop severe or critical COVID-19 disease,” said Dr. Roger M. Perlmutter, President Merck Research Laboratories. “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 of investigational medicines and vaccines designed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Competition

Recently, two antibody therapies, one by Regeneron and one by Eli Lilly, were approved for emergency use to treat mild to moderate COVID-19. However, they are not authorized to treat patients that require oxygen therapy for the disease. Additionally, the World Health Organization recently recommended against the use of Remdesivir to treat hospitalized patients with COVID. They emphasized that there is no evidence Remdesivir improves survival or other outcomes in these patients.  It is clear that treatments that improve survival and are effective in hospitalized patients that require oxygen are greatly needed.

By Daniel Ojeda, Ph.D.

Related Article: COVID-19: After Lilly, Regeneron Bags EUA for its Antibody Therapy

References
  1. https://www.merck.com/news/merck-to-acquire-oncoimmune/
  2. http://www.oncoimmune.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=480:cd24fc&Itemid=426#:~:text=Therefore%2C%20CD24Fc%20has%20a%20dual,10%2Dassociated%20SHP1%20inhibitory%20signaling
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7308593/
  4. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-recommends-against-the-use-of-remdesivir-in-covid-19-patients

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