Big Pharma chief who developed first Ebola shot breaks silence on COVID-19
Bloomberg: Over the past few months, Wall Street, the healthcare 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 that 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 prioritise, you start with risk groups: healthcare 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 anti-viral 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 [executive vice-president] Roger Perlmutter.
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