'Grave disservice': Merck CEO warns against virus vaccine hopes

Head of US pharmaceutical giant says health officials may not be able to distribute coronavirus vaccines widely enough.

    The Trump administration aims to produce 300 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021 through Operation Warp Speed [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
    The Trump administration aims to produce 300 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021 through Operation Warp Speed [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

    Coronavirus vaccines under development are not guaranteed to work, and people who raise hopes of developing a vaccine before year-end are doing a "grave disservice to the public", Merck & Co Inc's chief said, according to a Harvard Business Review report.

    The potential vaccines may not have the qualities needed to be rapidly deployed in large numbers, Chief Executive Kenneth Frazier said in an interview published on Monday.

    "If you're going to use a vaccine on billions of people, you better know what that vaccine does," he was quoted as saying.

    A United States official said Monday that drugmakers partnered with the US government are on track to begin actively manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the summer, Reuters reported.

    The Trump administration aims to produce 300 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021 through its Operation Warp Speed Program.

    Some previous vaccines "not only didn't confer protection, but actually helped the virus invade the cell, because it was incomplete in terms of its immunogenic properties," Frazier said. "So we have to be very careful."

    Merck announced in May plans to study potential vaccine and therapy candidates for COVID-19 through partnerships and acquisition of Austrian vaccine maker Themis Bioscience. It has not started clinical trials for its vaccine.

    Frazier, one of only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, said the US pandemic, with a higher death rate among people of colour, has highlighted "huge structural elements of racism that have existed in this country for a long time."

    US companies must work to dismantle processes and systems that impede Black employees from advancing, he said. "At the end of the day, if you're complacent with the status quo, you're complicit in the racism that the status quo hides."

    Moderna's vaccine candidate

    US researchers reported on Tuesday that drugmaker Moderna's experimental vaccine for COVID-19 showed it was safe and provoked immune responses in all 45 healthy volunteers in an ongoing early-stage study.

    Volunteers who got two doses of the vaccine had high levels of virus-killing antibodies that exceeded the average levels seen in people who had recovered from COVID-19, the team reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    No study volunteers experienced a serious side effect, but more than half reported mild or moderate reactions such as fatigue, headache, chills, muscle aches or pain at the injection site. These were more likely to occur after the second dose and in people who got the highest dose.

    Experts say a vaccine is needed to put an end to the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened millions and caused nearly 575,000 deaths worldwide.

    Moderna was the first to start human testing of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus on March 16, 66 days after the genetic sequence of the virus was released.

    Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose researchers developed Moderna's vaccine candidate, called the results "good news", noting that the study found no serious adverse events and the vaccine produced "reasonably high" levels of virus-killing or neutralizing antibodies.

    "If your vaccine can induce a response comparable with natural infection, that's a winner," Fauci said in a telephone interview with Reuters. "That's why we're very pleased by the results."

    Moderna shares jumped more than 15 percent in after-hours trading on Tuesday and gave Asian shares an early boost.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency