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Johnson & Johnson is getting help with COVID vaccine production from one of its biggest competitors

johnson and johnson vaccine production
Photo via Stockphotokun/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In an unusual development meant to speed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to wider distribution, the Biden Administration has brokered an agreement in which Merck—a competing pharmaceutical company—will work on Johnson & Johnson vaccine production in the coming months. 

The Washington Post reported that administration officials said “they began scouring the country for additional manufacturing capacity after they realized in the first days of the administration that Johnson & Johnson had fallen behind in vaccine production. They soon sought to broker a deal with Merck, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, which had failed to develop its own coronavirus vaccine.” 

The agreement will involve Merck dedicating two U.S. facilities to Johnson & Johnson vaccine production. As the article noted, “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 Post also reported, according to administration officials, that Biden would “wield the powers of the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, to give Merck priority in securing equipment it will need to upgrade its facilities for vaccine production, including the purchase of machinery, bags, tubing, and filtration systems.” 

Merck was initially in the running to create a COVID-19 vaccine, but as Nautilus wrote in January, its two vaccine candidates, which were deemed safe, simply didn’t generate enough of an immune response in people.  

The AP reported that Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech the afternoon of Mar. 2, pointing out that “his administration now expects to have enough supply of the three approved vaccines to inoculate all eligible American adults by June—though actually delivering the injections could take longer.” 

The partnership may help Johnson & Johnson meet its pledge with the U.S. to provide 100 million doses by the end of June.

NBC News reported that this isn’t the first partnership between two drugmakers to help ramp up vaccine supplies. In late January, French drugmaker Sanofi announced it would work with Pfizer on filling and packing millions of its vaccine doses to help meet demand. Moderna has forged a partnership with Swiss company Lonza, which produces most of the drug substances for the company’s vaccine.

NBC also noted in its report that White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed disappointment back in February with the number of doses initially expected from Johnson & Johnson, noting the federal government thought there would be “considerably more” for the first rollout. 

Sources: Washington Post, AP, NBC News


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