Merck & Co's CEO has doubts over fast COVID-19 vaccine development

Ken Frazier, Merck CEO

Merck & Co’s CEO Kenneth Frazier has warned that the many COVID-19 vaccines under development are not guaranteed to work, adding that it may be too optimistic to expect one to be approved and ready by year-end. 

According to Reuters and other news outlets, Frazier said that those who expect a vaccine before year end are doing a “grave disservice to the public”. 

The reports cited comments made by Frazier to the subscription-only publication the Harvard Business Review. 

Frazier warned that the potential vaccines may not be of sufficient quality to be rapidly deployed in large numbers of people, according to the interview published on Monday. 

“If you’re going to use a vaccine on billions of people, you better know what that vaccine does.” 

Frazier’s comments followed comments from an unnamed US official who told Reuters that a vaccine will be in production and manufacturing in between four and six weeks’ time “by the end of summer”. 

As part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development programme, the US government has given grants for vaccines ranging from several hundred million dollars to over $1 billion to Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novovax. 

The programme aims to make 300 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021. 

Frazier said 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.” 

So we have to be very careful.” 

Frazier is one of only four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and he expressed concern in the interview about the higher death rates seen among non-white people. 

He said this had highlighted “huge structural elements of racism that have existed in this country (the US) for a long time.” 

US companies must get rid of processes and systems that prevent black employees from advancing, Frazier added. 

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.” 

US-based Merck & Co  is behind its rivals with its COVID-19 vaccine, which is one of 140 in preclinical development. 

The World Health Organization has been keeping tabs on the race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 and says there are now 23 in clinical development. 

China’s Sinovac is top of the list, closely followed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, with both of these vaccines fast-tracked into phase 3 development.