The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co will help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under a highly unusual deal, brokered by the White House. The move could substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus are taking hold in the United States.
President Biden is expected to announce the arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, on Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials, who confirmed the arrangement on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that has not yet been made public. It comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Officials described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic,” and said it harkens back to Mr. Biden’s vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns waged during World War II.
According to one official involved, the administration has been scouring the manufacturing landscape for weeks, ever since it became evident that Johnson & Johnson’s was running behind on its manufacturing. But just how quickly Merck will be able to ramp up is unclear. It will take months for the company to be able to convert its facilities to manufacture and package a vaccine that it did not invent.
Under the agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which unlike the other two vaccines that have emergency approval in the U.S. requires only one shot.
One facility will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance” — the vaccine itself. Officials hope that by the end of the year, the arrangement will double the capacity of what Johnson & Johnson’s capacity could manufacture on its own — perhaps bringing the total number of doses to as many as one billion.
Officials are not identifying the facilities involved for security reasons, one said.
The president is invoking the Defense Production Act to help Merck retrofit its facilities to be able to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, one of the officials said. The company will be able to start the fill-finish process in about two months, this official said, and it will take longer than that to ramp up actual production of the vaccine itself.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine joins two others — one made by Pfizer BioNTech, the other by Moderna — that already have emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines performed slightly better in…
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