- Merck & Co. will help Johnson & Johnson manufacture the coronavirus vaccine the U.S. authorized over the weekend under a deal brokered by the Biden administration, White House officials announced Tuesday. The deal is part of an effort to manufacture enough vaccine supply for every U.S. adult by the end of May, a target two months earlier than previously pledged by the president.
- Supported by $269 million in federal funding, Merck will make doses of J&J's vaccine as well as fill and finish vials in a partnership that White House officials said could double production. J&J's is the only vaccine authorized in the U.S. that requires a single shot.
- J&J in August signed a deal with the U.S. to supply 100 million doses, then promising to deliver 12 million by the end of February. Manufacturing fell behind, however, and only 3.9 million doses were set to be distributed this week, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said Monday, with another 16 million to follow by the end of March.
Merck has become the latest big drugmaker, following Sanofi and Novartis, to lend support to competitors by offering assistance manufacturing doses. The $269 million in funding will come from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, through which much of the federal support for coronavirus vaccine and drug developers has flowed.
For Merck and Sanofi, those moves came after vaccine they were developing were either scrapped or delayed due to disappointing results. Merck shelved two projects, for example, after both produced weaker-than-expected immune responses. Sanofi had similar problems, but recently brought an upgraded product into Phase 2 testing.
In the meantime, pressure has grown for those companies, and others not at the forefront of vaccine development, to help in other ways. Although the number of daily new COVID-19 cases has declined substantially from post-holiday peaks, the U.S. is still averaging more than 60,000 new cases each day.
Moreover, there are worries about the spread of more transmissible virus variants. One of those variants, known as B.1.351 and first identified in South Africa, has been shown to weaken the immune responses generated by multiple vaccines, though it's unclear to what degree.
All of which has heightened the urgency to quickly boost the production and distribution of available vaccines. More than 50 million U.S. residents have received at least one dose of the two-shot regimens developed by Pfizer and Moderna as of Monday. However, most immunization programs in the U.S. haven't expanded meaningfully beyond frontline healthcare workers, people with high-risk conditions and those over 65 years old. And the majority of the Pfizer and Moderna doses preordered by the U.S. aren't available yet.
The Merck and J&J deal could help, albeit not right away. White House officials told the Washington Post that the agreement could as much as double supply of J&J's vaccine, but they acknowledged that it might take months for Merck's manufacturing facilities to get online. That makes it more likely that the scaled up production could play a role later on, when public health programs try to deliver vaccines for children or when boosters might be needed to counter the spread of variants.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the J&J vaccine on Saturday. A large clinical trial showed a single shot was able to reduce moderate or severe COVID-19 by 66% compared to those who received a placebo, while offering near-complete protection against hospitalization or death. J&J is also testing the effectiveness of a two-shot vaccine, with results expected this year.
Note: This article has been updated with details from Merck's announcement later in the day on Tuesday.