Merck Poised to Make J&J Vaccine, Boosting Output of Shots

Merck Poised to Make J&J Vaccine, Boosting Output of Shots

President Joe Biden will announce Tuesday that Merck & Co. will help make Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine -- a collaboration between rivals as the immunization race narrows and governments race to ramp up supply before dangerous new variants of the virus further erupt.

Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz said via Twitter that Biden would announce the “historic partnership,” reported earlier by the Washington Post. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in a tweet that Biden would announce the deal in afternoon remarks.

J&J’s vaccine was authorized for U.S. use on Saturday, adding a third shot to the country’s mass inoculation efforts. The company immediately allocated a stockpile of 3.9 million doses, which are already being shipped, and has said it will provide 16 million more by the end of the month. Biden officials have said those doses will skew heavily toward the end of the month.

Merck spokesman Patrick Ryan said the company remains committed to contributing to the global response to the pandemic but declined to comment directly on a potential collaboration. A spokesperson for J&J declined to comment.

J&J shares were up 0.5%, while Merck’s rose 1.2% at 9:51 a.m. on Tuesday in New York.

Jeff Zients, who serves as Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator, has said the administration is working with J&J to expand its production capacity.

Variant Spread

Biden is scheduled to speak at the White House Tuesday afternoon, and has made quelling the pandemic a cornerstone of his administration. Cases and hospitalizations have fallen from January highs but are still at high levels as emerging, more contagious variants spread -- prompting the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn this week against relaxing lockdown measures.

On Jan. 25, Merck announced that it was shuttering its Covid-19 vaccine program. The U.S. pharmaceutical company responsible for developing mainstay shots for measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox had recently ushered two Covid-fighting candidates into human trials -- one based on technology used in its Ebola virus shot, and the other based on a measles vaccine used in Europe. But early results were lackluster, leading Merck to squash the program and redirect resources to its Covid-19 therapeutics efforts.

J&J’s shot, meanwhile, is the first one-dose vaccine authorized in the U.S. and is much easier to ship and store than its predecessors -- which could allow health officials to more easily reach under-served and far-flung communities. However, health officials are already moving to head off concerns about the shot, whose top-line efficacy data at first blush may leave the impression it’s less effective, though it stopped 100% of hospitalizations and deaths.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that Americans should take whatever shot they can, as soon as they can, and not hold out for one candidate or another.

Fauci also has said the efficacy of authorized Covid-19 vaccines cannot be compared, given they haven’t been directly tested against one another, and the clinical trials took place at different points in the course of the pandemic.

J&J Partnerships

On Monday, J&J Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky said in an interview that the company was seeking additional manufacturing partnerships to increase and speed supply of its vaccine.

“We are doing everything we can partnering with the U.S. government and other external manufacturers to see what we can do to accelerate and increase” the number of doses, Gorsky said.

J&J is looking to augment particular areas of production, he said. One is its capacity for making a live cold virus, called an adenovirus, that’s used in the shot to trigger an immune response that fights off infection. The other is its fill-finish abilities, the final step where the vaccine is placed in vials. Fill-finish capacity remains limited, Gorsky said.

The health-care conglomerate has a global manufacturing network for its Covid-19 vaccine spanning the U.S., Europe, Asia and Africa. Separate from partnerships with Merck and French drugmaker Sanofi, which is aiding with the vaccine’s formulation and fill-finish in Europe, J&J aims to have eight facilities operating by midyear.

The U.S. has administered 76.9 million doses so far of Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. two-shot vaccine regimens, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. The seven-day average of doses administered is 1.8 million.

A total of 100 million doses of the J&J shot have been ordered by the U.S., due for delivery by the end of June. The government has enough orders of the three authorized shots so far to vaccinate about 400 million people.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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