President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that pharmaceutical company Merck would help manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine.
The decision is made as the administration is working to ramp up production of J & J’s single-shot vaccine. Senior government officials said Sunday the US government will ship J & J’s entire inventory of 3.9 million cans this week, adding that supply would be “uneven” over the following weeks. Another 16 million doses are expected by the end of the month.
Under the agreement, Merck will deploy two facilities in the US for J & J’s vaccine, the Washington Post previously reported. One will make the vaccine and the other will provide “fill-finish” services when the vaccine is put into vials.
The Department of Health and Human Services later announced Tuesday that the U.S. Defense Production Act will provide a $ 105 million investment for Merck to upgrade the company’s facilities to the standards required to safely manufacture the vaccine , upgrade and equip.
Officials began scouring the country for additional manufacturing capacity after discovering J&J had fallen behind in vaccine production in the early days of administration, the Post reported. They soon sought a deal with Merck, which abandoned plans to develop its own Covid vaccine in January after a clinical study showed its shots were ineffective.
“These efforts will help J&J accelerate the delivery of their vaccine doses from 100 million doses by the end of June to at least 100 million doses by the end of May,” HHS said in a statement. “In the long term, these actions will ultimately double J & J’s US drug compound manufacturing capacity and increase US bottling capacity.”
Later on Tuesday, J&J said in a statement that the collaboration with Merck “will improve our manufacturing capacity so that we can deliver beyond our current commitments.”
In a statement, Merck said it was “unwavering in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and prepare us to deal with future pandemics”.
In an interview with CNBC, Michael Nally, Merck’s chief marketing officer, said the partnership is “very meaningful” and will “dramatically increase” the capacity of the J&J vaccine over time. He declined to provide precise figures on how Merck’s stake will affect J & J’s offer.
He also said the collaboration would have no impact on the production of Merck’s other drugs, adding, “This was all capacity targeted for our Covid products.”
“We are very confident that we can continue to produce all of our vaccines without interruption,” he said. He added the company is open to working with businesses and public health officials on similar collobations.
The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved J & J’s vaccine for use in people aged 18 and over. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, patients with the single dose of J&J do not need to take a second dose and can be stored at refrigerator temperature for months.
In comparison, Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored in ultra-cold freezers that keep between minus 112 and minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the FDA recently allowed the company to store its vaccine for two weeks at temperatures commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers. Moderna vaccine must be shipped at 13 to 5 degrees above zero Fahrenheit.
The New York Times first reported in January that unexpected delays in manufacturing would result in decreased primary care of J & J’s medication if it were given emergency approval.
The Chief Medical Officer of the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month he was “disappointed” with the number of doses J&J originally expected, adding that the federal government had assumed there would be “significantly more”. The New Jersey-based company has signed a contract with the United States to supply 100 million cans by the end of June.
“It can take June, July and August to get everyone vaccinated,” Fauci told CNN on February 16. I don’t think anyone will disagree that this will be good by the end of summer and we’ll get into early fall. “
At the time, Bidens Covid Tsar Jeff Zients said the federal government was “doing everything it can to work with the company to expedite the delivery schedule”.
This is not the first partnership between two drugmakers to help improve vaccine supply.
In late January, French drug maker Sanofi announced it would help fill and package millions of doses of Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine to meet demand. Moderna has a partnership with the Swiss company Lonza, which makes most of the medicines for the company’s vaccine.
The Biden government has also announced that it is using the Defense Equipment Act to improve supplies of Pfizer’s vaccine.