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Merck to acquire U.S. biotech with experimental COVID-19 drug

By
Don Jacobson
The risk of death or respiratory failure was reduced by more than 50% for those who took the experimental drug, which is intended for patients with severe COVID-19. File Photo by Justin Lane/EPA-EFE
The risk of death or respiratory failure was reduced by more than 50% for those who took the experimental drug, which is intended for patients with severe COVID-19. File Photo by Justin Lane/EPA-EFE

Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Pharmaceutical company Merck said Monday it will acquire a small, privately-held biotech firm that has developed a promising drug candidate for treating severe cases of COVID-19.

Merck will acquire OncoImmune and its therapeutic coronavirus candidate CD24Fc for $425 million, according to Merck President Roger Perlmutter.

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"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," Perlmutter said in a statement Monday.

"Meaningful new therapeutic options are desperately needed for possibly millions of people around the world who will develop severe or critical COVID-19 disease."

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Rockville, Md.-based OncoImmune, founded by University of Maryland researcher Yang Liu, reported encouraging interim results of a late-stage clinical study of CD24F two months ago. It found that patients with severe COVID-19 who were treated with a single dose of the drug were 60% more likely to improve, compared to a placebo.

The risk of death or respiratory failure was also reduced by more than 50%, OncoImmune said. The company evaluated the drug in more than 200 volunteers.

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Perlmutter called the results "remarkable" and said the drug could make a great impact on the coronavirus pandemic with Merck's global reach.

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"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," he told CNBC.

Detailed results for the potential treatment, however, have not yet been peer-reviewed.

The companies said that OncoImmune's other investigational drug candidates will be spun off into a new company, in which Merck will invest $50 million and hold a minority stake.

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