By Kirsti Knolle
VIENNA (Reuters) - Nobody will get preferential access to a potential COVID-19 drug developed by vaccine maker Themis Bioscience, which is being bought by U.S. pharmaceuticals firm Merck & Co Inc, the Austrian firm's chief executive said on Thursday.
"Merck has already demonstrated in the past ... that it makes vaccines available to anybody who needs them," Erich Tauber told Reuters on Thursday, adding a potential vaccine would be made available globally.
"It is one of the reasons why we have decided to cooperate with Merck."
Merck, which has largely kept to the sidelines of the race for COVID-19 treatments, said on Tuesday it was buying Themis Bioscience, which is developing its vaccine in collaboration with the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
While not yet proven to be effective against the coronavirus, vaccines are seen by world leaders as the only real way to restart stalled economies.
Tauber said he was very confident that a vaccine against COVID-19 can be developed and hoped it could be given as a single-dose vaccination.
The strong relationship between SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the new disease, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was a big help in the development process as scientists already knew a lot about these two.
Clinical tests for the Themis vaccine, which is based on a genetically modified measles virus that delivers bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the human body to prevent COVID-19, will start soon in France and Belgium, the CEO said. They will be extended quickly to other European countries and America.
"We have proven in the past with other vaccine candidates that this measles virus vector system works very well ... we have proven that it is very safe," he said.
Based on this measles vector platform, the privately held company with 38 staff was close to a phase III study for a vaccine against the Chikungunta virus, a tropical disease, before it changed its focus due to the COVID-19 outbreak a few months ago.
In clinical tests, healthy people will be vaccinated and their antibody response will be measured, Tauber said. Depending on the spread of COVID-19 in the second half of the year, Themis would also measure if these people get sick.
The CEO said it was impossible to predict when the vaccine against the new coronavirus would be available. However, Themis was in close contact with regulators in Europe and the United States. "I expect that there will be swift procedures, that approval authorities will treat (applications) with the highest priority and that there will be innovative approval mechanisms," Tauber said.
Asked about manufacturing capacities, he referred to Merck's global network, saying this was Themis' biggest advantage compared to competitors.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; editing by Jason Neely and David Evans)