Johnson & Johnson is getting some help to make their newly available covid-19 vaccine. On Tuesday, the White House confirmed that pharmaceutical company Merck has agreed to step in and produce some of J&J’s vaccines, in order to address a potential shortfall in supply. The single dose vaccine was authorised for emergency use in the U.S. by federal regulators over the weekend.
The deal is expected to be announced in detail by U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday, the Washington Post first reported. At this point, it’s not known just how much of the supply Merck is expected to pick up, nor the exact financial arrangement of the deal between the companies. Merck plans to use two plants as part of the collaboration, one to make the actual vaccine and the other to package it into vials. The Post reported that Biden will use the Defence Production Act to ensure that Merck can acquire the equipment needed to get its facilities ready to produce the vaccine.
Merck’s entry into vaccine production on behalf of J&J is certainly unusual given the normally competitive nature of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s also notable because Merck had recently abandoned its own development of a covid-19 vaccine candidate, following a lack of promising early trial data. In their announcement of the shutdown, however, the company did state that it would redirect its resources into developing treatments for covid-19.
J&J’s vaccine was granted an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday, making it the third to receive an EUA, along with vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. On Sunday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended the vaccine for people over the age of 18, setting the stage for distribution to start this week.
The company had earlier pledged that it would have nearly 4 million doses available following the EUA, along with 20 million doses total by the end of March. The AP reported that the company told the government it was now facing production problems that would delay this schedule, which led officials to look for and broker a deal with a suitable partner that could help with production. Both Pfizer and Moderna encountered similar issues that lowered their initial promised supply.
With the new deal in place and rosier recent production projections from Pfizer and Moderna (the companies have promised to deliver a combined 220 million doses by the end of March), the White House is expected to announce a significant acceleration in the availability of covid-19 vaccines. According to the AP, President Biden will claim in his speech this afternoon that there will be enough doses available for every willing American by June. And there may yet be two more vaccines — one by Novavax and the other by Oxford University/AstraZeneca — that will receive a EUA and be available for use by this summer.
Some public health experts had already called for more cooperation between pharmaceutical companies to boost the availability of covid-19 vaccines, even prior to this deal. They’ve argued that it’s especially important for addressing the shortage of vaccines worldwide. Though the U.S. has struggled to meet demand, it’s still far better off than many lower-income countries. Experts have warned that it will take until next year at the earliest to vaccinate a significant portion of the world if production continues to be limited and wealthier countries stockpile all the vaccines for themselves.