The small American company developing a made-in-Canada Ebola vaccine has just received some major league help.
Pharma giant Merck has entered into an agreement with the company that holds the vaccine licence, NewLink Genetics, to develop the investigational Ebola vaccine.
The deal is worldwide and exclusive. The companies did not announce a monetary value of the deal.
Monday's announcement culminated weeks of negotiations between the two companies and will likely be greeted with enthusiasm by parties hoping the vaccine can be used to contain the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
There had been widespread concerns that NewLink did not have the muscle or the experience to get the vaccine through testing and into use.
The biotech firm, based in Ames, Iowa, does not have its own vaccine production facilities and has not yet brought a product through the gruelling regulatory process. But Merck, a multinational with operations in 140 countries, has deep experience in vaccine production.
"Merck is committed to applying our vaccine expertise to address important global health needs and, through our collaboration with NewLink, we hope to advance the public health response to this urgent international health priority," Dr. Julie Gerberding, president of Merck Vaccines, said in a statement.
The agreement grants Merck the exclusive rights to the vaccine – known as rVSV-EBOV – as well as any follow on products.
It is expected if this vaccine works that vaccines using the same design might be made to protect against Marburg virus, a viral cousin of Ebola's, as well as for other strains of Ebola. The current vaccine will only protect against the Ebola Zaire virus, the strain responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa.
The vaccine, designed by scientists at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, is one of the two most advanced Ebola vaccines currently in play.
And of the two, it is the one scientists believe has the better chance of working in West Africa. It is thought the vaccine should be able to protect with a single dose, which is critical in countries where health-care systems are in tatters.
The other vaccine, made by GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithKline), is further along in testing. But it is feared that vaccine will require two doses – a priming dose and a boosting dose, perhaps with a different vaccine. The would be hugely challenging to deliver in the outbreak countries.
Under the agreement, the Public Health Agency of Canada retains non-commercial rights pertaining to the product.
"This vaccine is the result of years of hard work and innovation by Canadian scientists," Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in the statement.
"We are pleased that this new alliance coupled with the clinical trials currently underway will further strengthen the possibility that the vaccine will make a difference in the global response to the Ebola outbreak."