Biden Duo’s Nudge Eased Merck-J&J Logjam to Speed Vaccine Output

It was Valentine’s Day, and top Biden administration officials were concerned that Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine was behind schedule.

In a phone call that Sunday between J&J Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky and Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator, Jeff Zients, and science adviser David Kessler, Kessler implored Gorsky to ramp up production of the company’s shot.

He drew a comparison with Robert Wood Johnson, son of one of the company’s founders, who became known as “General” Johnson after leading a World War II effort to involve small businesses in the production of wartime supplies.

Biden Duo’s Nudge Eased Merck-J&J Logjam to Speed Vaccine Output

This, too, is a wartime effort, Kessler told Gorsky, and the status quo isn’t enough. Scheduled to last 15 minutes, the call extended to 90, according to people familiar with the matter. Afterward, J&J’s executive vice president, Kathy Wengel, called the Biden team back and said the company was on board, the people said.

The push from the president’s advisers reinvigorated simmering talks that led to a tie-up between the company and its competitor Merck & Co., which also struck a separate deal with the U.S. government to help it speed up J&J’s production.

Biden will also announce Wednesday that he will buy another 100 million doses from J&J, doubling the country’s order in a deal that will be finalized in the coming weeks, officials familiar with the move said. The U.S. is stockpiling surplus doses amid concerns about variants, which could lead to the need for booster shots, and uncertainty about which shots are best for kids, one of the officials said.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday will celebrate the Merck and J&J partnership, which he has said his administration brokered to accelerate manufacturing of J&J’s shot, the third vaccine the U.S. has authorized to prevent Covid-19. Biden has described the deal as one of several accomplishments that will lead to the U.S. having enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May, two months earlier than he’d previously predicted.

But the companies say the deal won’t contribute significantly to J&J’s production until later in the year, leaving unclear how the U.S. will benefit. Spokespeople for the White House, Merck and J&J all declined to comment.

Biden Duo’s Nudge Eased Merck-J&J Logjam to Speed Vaccine Output

Accelerating Vaccines

The Feb. 14 call between Biden’s lieutenants and Gorsky came at a time when the new administration was still learning the extent and shortcomings of the vaccination program created under President Donald Trump. Zients and Kessler were in charge of vastly accelerating the pace of shots.

Talks between Merck and J&J had begun before Biden was inaugurated. Merck’s Jan. 25 announcement that it would abandon its own vaccine candidates led to an acceleration of the discussions with J&J, which had what was expected to be a successful vaccine -- but also manufacturing bottlenecks that alarmed Biden administration officials.

In the weeks that followed, the chief executives of the two companies, who are longtime friends, hammered out an agreement under which Merck will help produce and package J&J’s vaccine.

The president will appear at the White House Wednesday with Gorsky and Merck chairman and CEO Ken Frazier to celebrate their partnership. Biden risks overstating his administration’s role in the agreement between the companies -- similar to the White House’s effort to downplay the Trump administration’s significant role laying groundwork for a U.S. vaccination campaign that is becoming the envy of the world.

Partnership’s Effects

Neither Merck nor J&J has publicly credited Biden for brokering their deal. While Biden has implied the agreement helped speed up his administration’s vaccine deliveries, Merck Chief Marketing Officer Michael Nally has said the partnership won’t add to J&J’s production for months, and the full effect won’t be felt until late in the year.

Yet Biden can inarguably point to the U.S. vaccination program as a success. Nearly 94 million doses have been jabbed into American arms so far, almost a third of the global total, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. In the last week, the U.S. has averaged more than 2 million shots a day, better than double the pace when Biden took office.

About 18% of Americans have had at least one dose, and nearly 10% have completed their vaccinations. Among countries that have administered 1 million doses or more, only Chile, the U.K. and Israel can boast giving at at least one shot to a higher proportion of their population.

That’s put Biden on track to meet his goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days by later this month -- just over 60 days after he was inaugurated.

The administration’s ability to announce faster vaccine production also was built on accelerating the date by which Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. would deliver enough doses for 200 million adults to May, from June previously. That set the table to press J&J to target May as well, officials said.

‘Warping the Speed’

“We’re really warping the speed now,” Biden said Monday at a veterans’ vaccine event, a reference to Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” program to accelerate development of the shots.

“We’re doing pretty good across the country,” he said.

Under the Merck and J&J deal that Biden will tout Wednesday, Merck will help its competitor with two stages of vaccine manufacturing: producing so-called drug substance, which is the active ingredient, and then loading the substance into vials before sealing them, known as the fill-finish stage. Terms for the arrangement have not been disclosed.

Separately, the Biden administration has its own agreement with Merck to quickly re-purpose some of its factories to make Covid-19 vaccines, including J&J’s shot, and therapeutics, including its own drug candidate for patients with severe cases of the disease.

The administration has also invoked a war-powers law, the Defense Production Act, to help J&J and its suppliers obtain materials and machinery they need to churn out vaccines around the clock.

Administration’s Role

Zients and Kessler have led those discussions. Biden credited Zients on Monday: “This guy got a hold of Merck and put them together and did something that’s unusual these days -- put together two competitors to help save lives,” he said.

Talks between the two New Jersey-based companies waxed and waned, and predated Biden’s administration. J&J initially declined an earlier Merck offer to help produce drug substance, one official familiar with the matter said, and Biden’s team took power thinking a partnership was dead.

But five days into Biden’s term, Merck shelved its own vaccine development program, freeing up capacity to assist with other projects. Merck launched into discussions with a number of drug companies and governments, but ultimately determined its capabilities were well suited for J&J’s vaccine.

Biden officials, meanwhile, were concerned that J&J’s production bottlenecks were worse than expected and would prevent the company from meeting delivery targets. The company had pledged 12 million doses by the end of February.

Since winning the Food and Drug Administration’s signoff on Feb. 27, J&J has delivered about 4 million doses and has promised 20 million by the end of the month. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department has said it expects nearly 100 million of the company’s shots to be delivered by the end of May. The company has only said it will deliver 100 million by the end of June.

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