The Washington Post is reporting that pharmaceutical giant Merck will team up with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to assist in the production of its newly approved coronavirus vaccine. An announcement by President Joe Biden is expected Tuesday announcing the deal, which is expected to dramatically enhance Johnson & Johnson’s ability to manufacture its one-shot vaccine. Since Inauguration Day, the Biden administration has been working to bolster the company’s production capacity, which was lagging behind what it committed to provide in contracts with the U.S. government. The White House, the Post reports, brokered the unusual deal between the American competitors.
Under the arrangement, Merck will dedicate two facilities in the United States to Johnson & Johnson’s shots. One will provide “fill-finish” services, the last stage of the production process during which the vaccine substance is placed in vials and packaged for distribution. The other will make the vaccine, and has the potential to vastly increase supply, perhaps even doubling what Johnson & Johnson could make on its own, the officials said.
Merck, one of the largest vaccine-makers in the world, already supplies Americans with a variety of vaccines for diseases ranging from measles, mumps, and rubella to human papillomavirus and even Ebola. The New Jersey–based company, however, has been unable to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine of its own, halting work in late January on a two-shot regimen it was working on. That left the company with plenty of manufacturing capacity, but without a vaccine of its own to produce.
The expected announcement comes as Johnson & Johnson has struggled to come up with enough doses: The company said it would have 20 million doses out the door in the U.S. by the end of March, but that is 17 million fewer than its contract called for. The company has insisted it is still on track to deliver 100 million doses in the U.S. by the end of June with a goal of producing 1 billion doses worldwide by the end of 2021. The Merck deal should help make this happen, though it could still take two months to get the last-stage “fill-finish” plants ready to go, and several months longer for more substantive production plants to come online. To help move things along, the Post reports, Biden will use the Defense Production Act to assist the company in procuring the materials needed to upgrade its facilities to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Biden’s interest and involvement in the deal, the Post notes, could indicate that vaccination against the coronavirus will now be considered an ongoing national effort, not a one-time fix, possibly involving booster shots to combat variants that spring up for years to come, as well as vaccinating children.