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Greek American Physician Helped Develop Merck Corona Pill

Kartsonis VP Merck
Nick Kartsonis is the Greek American physician, scientist and senior vice president at Merck who has helped to create the coronavirus pill. Credit: Image courtesy of Merck

A Greek-American, Dr. Nick Kartsonis is the Senior Vice President in charge of global clinical trials at Merck Research Laboratories, the company that has developed the first pill authorized to combat the coronavirus.

Merck pharmaceuticals developed the first antiviral pill against the coronavirus, approved on Thursday in the UK.

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Kartsonis, a physician specializing in infectious diseases, has spent the past two decades working as a medical scientist at Merck. He is responsible for the company’s global antiviral research and development.

The antiviral pill Kartsonis’ company has developed is getting approval just as cases are spiking to record highs in Greece. Clinical trials of the Molnupiravir anti-Covid pill studying its effects on 775 patients who were in the initial stages of a coronavirus infection found that only a mere 7.3% of those who took the drug were hospitalized. The pill is the very first oral medication to fight ongoing coronavirus infections — making it much more easily given than the current intravenous or injected treatments.

Greeks occupy some of the leading roles in the global pharmaceutical battle to wipe out Covid-19. Greeks Albert Bourlas, CEO of Pfizer and Menelaos Pangalos of AstraZeneca, are championing the fight against the pandemic.

Kartsonis on the price of the Merck drug

Recently, speaking to the Associated Press about the price of the Merck pill, Kartsonis stated that the final cost of treatment will be exorbitant.

“We set this price before we have data, so this is just a contract,” said Kartsonis. “Obviously we will be responsible for this and we will make this drug as accessible as possible to as many people around the world as we can.”

Kartsonis has worked for Merck in a variety of roles for almost 22 years. Always focused on infectious disease and clinical research, he has gone from director to senior vice president, when he joined the company in 2006.

On Kartsonis’ Twitter account he describes himself as “Physician Scientist, Grateful Father, Thankful Husband, Eternal Optimist, Dedicated Citizen Interested in Improving Health, Opinions are My Own.” And in reference to the cost, he tweets a quote by Walter Cronkite “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

On Merck’s  web page, Kartsonis has a dedicated article on the rapid global spread of the pandemic. “Science found a way before, and science will find a way today. Make no mistake: This coronavirus is obviously new to us and because it’s different from previous coronaviruses, we currently have very few treatment options,” he states.

The researcher points out that the key to success is collaboration. “We’ve seen so many bright spots, examples of people supporting each other and working together even on the darkest of days. In every hospital where health care providers have supported and saved patients, that’s collaboration.

“In every community where the spread of COVID-19 has slowed, that’s because of collaboration – everyone doing their part. Collaboration is key in science, too. While with each triumph of science there is always a person, an organization, an ‘a ha’ moment that made a difference – collaboration is always needed to take that discovery and make THE difference for the world. As a global scientific community, that is what we have done, and what we will do again,” stated Kartsonis.

“Information about the pathogen-host interactions at play here remains scant. But – like with polio, HIV, and flu – researchers far and wide are working on it, including in our own labs. And the technology we have in our hands today is light years ahead of where we were even 10 years ago. So, there is reason to be optimistic.”

The graduate of the Emory University School of Medicine stated, “My company has worked in the field of infectious diseases for 80 years, and on vaccines for more than 100 years. I’ve been honored to have a small part in that long history. In my role leading our infectious disease and vaccine clinical research today, I’m now working on potential medicines and vaccines for COVID-19.”

Karsonis added “I also happen to be a bit of an amateur historian, and I think today’s pandemic is a good time to look back at our history, not just to appreciate where we have come from, but for clues in terms of what lies ahead.”

The researcher described the progress that was made with the dreaded disease of polio. “In 1949 and 1952, the U.S. saw its worst outbreaks of polio. Cases mushroomed to an average of 35,000 a year. While 35,000 might sound small in light of the millions of cases of coronavirus in the U.S. thus far, polio had a devastating effect on children and families and struck fear in entire communities for months on end.”

According to Kartsonis, “At that time, the pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk, at the University of Pittsburgh, created the first effective polio vaccine. And that’s where the industry came in. My company, and five others, partnered with the National Institutes of Health to manufacture the vaccine. Each of those companies had to invest heavily in infrastructure to make the vaccine – and did.”

The number of polio cases in the U.S. declined between 1952 and 1960 from 52,879 to 3,190. For more than 30 years now, poliomyelitis in the U.S. has proven to be eradicated –and is now a distant memory.

Kartsonis stated that Merck has learned lessons from their experience with epidemics and pandemics. “Science found a way before, and science will find a way today. Make no mistake: This coronavirus is obviously new to us and because it’s different from previous coronaviruses, we currently have very few treatment options. Information about the pathogen-host interactions at play here remains scant.

“But – like with polio, HIV, and flu – researchers far and wide are working on it, including in our own labs. And the technology we have in our hands today is light years ahead of where we were even 10 years ago. So, there is reason to be optimistic,” according to Kartsonis.

Kartsonis takes pride in Merck history

The Greek-American takes great pride in the work done by Merck and his colleagues, dating as far back as the 1950s. Kartsonis stated, “In April 1957, a flu epidemic broke out in Hong Kong. The late and I must say, truly great, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, then an American virologist at the Army’s Walter Reed Institute, studied samples of the virus and made a startling discovery. The H1N1 strain that caused the monumental influenza epidemic worldwide in 1918 had evolved into the strikingly different but equally threatening H2N2.

“Dr. Hilleman was the first to recognize the danger looming and urged the medical community to come up with a vaccine. Among the first companies to answer that call was Merck – the company he was to soon join. The Merck vaccine program, with support from the NIH, developed an H2N2 vaccine. Before 1957 ended, my company had manufactured one-third of all the vaccines made for the pandemic,” according to the virologist.

anti covid pill molnupiravir-
A sample of the anti-covid ill developedby Merck pharmaceuticals. Credit: Image courtesy of Merck

Kartsonis says of his company “Merck – and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole – knows what it takes in a global public health crisis, which is to bring treatments and vaccines forward.

“This pandemic underscores the imperative for our company and our industry to keep investing in research to combat the greatest health threats,” Kartsonis stated.  “We can only do COVID-19 research today because we do research every day – we aren’t starting from zero. Years from now, another virus will undoubtedly emerge. And when it does, we will be that much smarter, and that much better prepared.

Kartsonis is the son of two Greek immigrants to the United States. He grew up in New Jersey and New York and lives in Narbeth, PA. The physician and research scientist is married, with three children.

Merck also has a Greek outlet known as  MSD Greece, based in Alimos, Attica. The company works collaboratively with Johnson and Johnson to produce the Covid-19 vaccine locally.

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