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March 02, 2021

Merck to help produce rival Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine

The pharmaceutical giant scrapped the development of its own coronavirus shots earlier this year to focus on therapeutics

Two rival pharmaceutical companies are teaming up to expedite the production of COVID-19 vaccines as part of a rare arrangement brokered by the White House. 

Merck will begin producing Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 shot after President Joe Biden enacted the Defense Production Act to consolidate the equipment and resources needed to boost supplies of the single-shot vaccine, Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Tuesday. 

Under the deal, Merck will provide two facilities for vaccine manufacturing efforts. One will be dedicated to the last stage of the production process, known as "fill-finish" services, when the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged. 

The other site will make the vaccine itself, with the potential to double the vaccine quantity that Johnson & Johnson could make on its own. However, it could take a few months to get the manufacturing sites up-and-running.

"The U.S. government will facilitate this partnership in several key ways, including invoking the Defense Protection Act to equip two Merck facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the vaccine and asking the (Department of Defense) to provide daily logistical support to strengthen J&J's efforts," Psaki said. 

The Washington Post broke the news Tuesday, citing senior administration officials. 

"It's a historic partnership," one of the officials told The Post, adding that the New Jersey-based companies "recognize this is a wartime effort" and the administration was grateful for their "corporate citizenship."

The Biden administration began searching for facilities to manufacture more vaccines earlier this year after learning that Johnson & Johnson had fallen behind on its vaccine production. They picked Merck due to its large manufacturing capacity. 

"Merck remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics," a spokesperson said in an email to PhillyVoice.

Merck is the country's sole supplier of the childhood measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The 130-year-old company developed the HPV vaccine and gained approval for an Ebola vaccine in 2019.

Merck scrapped the development of its own COVID-19 vaccines in January because they produced low antibody results during Phase 1 trials. The company shifted its focus to developing COVID-19 therapeutics

Before his inauguration, Biden signaled he would utilize the Defense Protection Act to speed up vaccine production. He is set to make an official announcement Tuesday afternoon. 

"We are pleased to collaborate with Merck as part of our global network to manufacture our COVID-19 vaccine," a spokesperson from Johnson & Johnson said. "Merck has a long history of vaccine expertise, and we expect this manufacturing arrangement will enhance our production capacity so that we can supply beyond our current commitments."

With three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use, the Biden administration predicts it will have enough vaccines to inoculate all eligible Americans by June — though distribution delays could push that date back, the Associated Press reported.

Johnson & Johnson said it would immediately ship nearly 4 million doses after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the vaccine over the weekend. It has committed to deliver 20 million by the end of March. 

That is still 17 million doses short of the total the company agreed to deliver in that time frameThe New York Times reported. But its $1 billion contract with the U.S. government says deliveries that are 30 days late are still considered timely.

Johnson & Johnson Vice President Richard Nettles told lawmakers last week that the company ran into "significant challenges" because of its "highly complex" manufacturing process. But the company still expects to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. 

Clinical trials showed the vaccine had a 66% overall efficacy. An FDA analysis found "no specific safety concerns" with the shot.

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