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Merck CEO Who Developed Ebola Vaccine Talks Covid-19 (Correct)

May 27, 2020, 2:17 PM

For nearly six months, U.S. drug giant Merck & Co. led a quiet effort to reach deals and secure federal funding to develop vaccines against the deadly coronavirus.

Top U.S. health leaders hinted that Merck, a drugmaker known for its nearly 130-year legacy of developing vaccines,had something brewing. On Tuesday, Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier broke his silence, revealing a multi-pronged approach to tackling the pandemic.

Kenneth Frazier
Photographer: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

The 65-year-old lawyer-turned-CEO has built up Merck’s oncology franchise while committing capital to less lucrative inoculations and antivirals critical to global public health. In December, he heralded the first-ever Ebola vaccine to be approved by U.S. regulators. Merck has been seeking a CEO to follow Frazier, who said he’s focused on business continuity during the pandemic and continues to have confidence in his potential successors.

Frazier spoke with Bloomberg by phone. His remarks have been edited for clarity and readability:

BLOOMBERG: Over the past few months, Wall Street, the health-care sector and the broader American public have been eager to learn more about Merck’s efforts to combat the pandemic. Why are you sharing news on the vaccine candidates now?

FRAZIER: It’s not that we couldn’t have done something earlier. The reason why we’re announcing these things now is because as we tried to select approaches, we did it with a view that we needed vaccines with three characteristics:

No. 1, they have to be vaccines that can be deployed broadly, globally. No. 2, and this is extremely important, these have to be vaccines that we have reasonable confidence could be effective with just a single dose. No. 3, we wanted to develop vaccines that used technology, platforms that have already been proven to work safely and effectively in people.

My colleagues have been working on this since the time coronavirus was first heard of, but they’ve taken their time and been very conscientious about which programs they think could make a difference over the long term.

BLOOMBERG: If global access to a coronavirus vaccine is a priority to Merck, how are you thinking about which countries you’ll serve first, should either candidate prove successful? And how would you price a vaccine to ensure affordability?

FRAZIER: In Merck’s view, if you prioritize, you start with risk groups as your first priority: Health-care workers, people who are extremely vulnerable. Not countries.

I can’t give you a price, but I can tell you we’re committed to broad, affordable access for everyone in the world. I mean, that’s why we did the Ebola vaccine. We didn’t think it would be a big seller in the United States or Europe.

BLOOMBERG: Does Merck currently have the manufacturing capacity to supply everyone in the world with a vaccine?

FRAZIER: Obviously, you have to work with others to ensure that happens. Remember something, if you have to scale up to supply the world, that’s never been done before. For example, we talked about the measles virus platform: We vaccinate the whole developed world every year. That’s 3.5 million kids. Think of the scale of what we need to deal with Covid-19. It’s both a pandemic situation and an endemic situation.

If we’re successful, we’re going to need partners and collaborators to make this globally available, and we’re prepared to do that.

BLOOMBERG: How does Merck’s deal to develop an antiviral pill for Covid-19 patients fit into that same overarching mission of ensuring global access to therapeutics that could alleviate the pandemic?

FRAZIER: Why this agent? It’s very potent. It’s like remdesivir, which has been shown to improve outcomes in some patients, but importantly, this compound can be given in pill form, which would make it easier to use than remdesivir, and potentially earlier in the infections. If you give an oral drug, it gives you the potential to use it early, rather than something that’s infused in the ICU.

And if you have to produce billions of doses, producing pills for that is a lot easier than remdesivir.

BLOOMBERG: How have these efforts impacted succession planning? Do you now intend to see Merck through the pandemic?

FRAZIER: I remain extremely confident in the people who are being considered to take my place. But, obviously, continuity is important. And this whole pandemic has disrupted the operations of the company, as it’s disrupted our society. But I think we’ll get back to normal at some point, and as I said before, when that comes, I am totally confident in the high-quality people who we have behind me and behind Roger Perlmutter.

(Corrects description of CEO’s comments on succession planning in the third paragraph to remove characterization of timing)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Riley Griffin in New York at rgriffin42@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Drew Armstrong at darmstrong17@bloomberg.net

Eric Pfanner, John Lauerman

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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