- A promising coronavirus drug called CD24Fc showed in clinical trials that it could reduce the risk of respiratory failure or death by more than 50%.
- Merck announced plans to purchase the COVID-19 drug in a deal worth at least $425 million, with plans to mass-produce the anti-inflammatory.
- The drug might be available before the middle of the year, once Merck starts manufacturing it and obtains the required regulatory approvals.
We’ve just reached a milestone that seemed far more distant back in March when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The vaccines are almost here. We were told at the time that the first vaccines would be ready in 12-18 months. This would be a remarkable roadmap, faster than any other vaccine effort so far. But there was always an if in that estimate. If they’re safe and effective, we’d have vaccines in 12-18 months. It now turns out that at least three COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and that’s just in the West. Russia has a vaccine it says is effective, and China has a few vaccines of its own, several of which have already been used on the general population.
But the world has reached this monumental milestone at a difficult moment in time. The virus is surging everywhere in the US and Europe, with America and many countries registering massive peaks. Millions of people are infected each week, and thousands are dying. It will be a long time until vaccines can curb the infection rate. And they can’t do anything about the people who are already infected with the virus. The scientific community is still working on therapies that can save more patients who develop severe cases of COVID-19. And it turns out there might be such a drug. It’s called CD24Fc, and Merck just bought it in a deal worth at least $425 million.
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CD24Fc doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it’s a new drug that has flown under the radar up until now. Developed by OncoImmune, the medicine proved in trials that it can reduce the risk of respiratory failure or death by more than 50% in COVID-19 patients who are on oxygen therapy.
Of the various coronavirus therapies that were approved for COVID-19, only a few can save lives. Blood plasma and monoclonal antibodies have to be used early in the illness and before patients require hospitalization. Remdesivir can hasten recovery, but doesn’t save lives. Dexamethasone is a breakthrough COVID-19 drug that can save patients, but it can’t help everyone, as it’s used to temper the exacerbated immune response to the infection. CD24Fc might make even more of a difference, given the level of interest around it.
Merck confirmed it would purchase OncoImmune and the CD24Fc for 425 million, with other cash incentives to follow when certain milestones are met. But Merck isn’t getting the entire company, only the part handling the CD24Fc medicine. Everything else under OncoImmune will spin off into a new company, with Merck investing an additional $50 million.
The drug proved in a late-stage clinical trial in September to reduce the risk of respiratory failure and death by more than 50% in hospitalized patients requiring oxygen. The drug is administered as an intravenous infusion in addition to other standard-of-care, which can include remdesivir and dexamethasone. The trial also showed that patients had a 60% higher probability of seeing improved clinical status. The data wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal yet.
Moncef Slaoui, the chief advisor to the Operation Warp Speed, highlighted the drug a few weeks ago, saying that the data has “just been incredible,” showing a “relative mortality impact that’s very clear.” The drug prevents the immune system “from being hyper-activated,” the scientist explained.
As promising as it might sound, the drug will need time to reach those in need, and that’s where Merck’s ample expertise should help.
“The results are remarkable,” Merck’s research chief Dr. Roger Perlmutter told CNCB. “We realized that this small little company was in no position to make CD24Fc to try and treat all of the people who could potentially benefit from this drug. We decided that the only way, seriously, that this could be brought to people who need it is for us to lean in with our capabilities.”
The report notes the drug is complicated to make and will require time. The exec said that Merck is aiming for “before the middle of next year, and ideally much before that,” to have an ample supply of the drug. Merck will seek emergency use approval only when there’s enough stock for people to use it.
“Frankly, nobody would have believed that it would have this kind of effect,” Perlmutter said when asked why the CD24Fc got so little attention when OncoImmune revealed the results. “If you look at the other anti-inflammatories that have been studied in very ill Covid-19 patients, it’s been hard to show there’s any effect at all.”
Merck sees potential for CD24Fc beyond COVID-19, as its anti-inflammatory powers might help in additional medical conditions. The company is also working on its own COVID-19 vaccines, and a pill-based treatment of its own making.