WASHINGTON (AP) — Drugmaker Merck & Co. will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly
approved coronavirus vaccine in an effort to expand supply more quickly, the White House said Tuesday.
The announcement comes as the White House looks to speed the production of the single-dose vaccine.
Officials have said J&J faced unexpected production issues with its vaccine and produced only
3.9 million doses ahead of its receiving emergency use authorization on Saturday. The company says it is
on pace to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also announced Tuesday that the federal government was increasing
supply of vaccines to states next week to 15.2 million doses per week, up from 14.5 million previously.
States will also receive 2.8 million doses of the J&J shot this week.
Facing questions about the company’s slipping delivery schedule, J&J Vice President Richard
Nettles told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week that the company had faced "significant
challenges" because of its "highly complex" manufacturing process.
The assistance from Merck was expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand
supply even further, but the administration did not immediately provide specifics.
Psaki said that an "across the administration effort" was required to get the two historic
rivals to work together on the vaccines, even though conversations between the two companies have been
going on for months.
"There’s a difference between conversations and it moving forward," she said.
President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech Tuesday afternoon, as 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.
It was not immediately clear when the effect of Merck’s assistance would be reflected in supply.
Previously, federal officials have cautioned that setting up the highly specialized manufacturing lines
to produce vaccines would take months.
The White House said Merck would devote two plants to the production process. One would make the vaccine
and the other would handle inserting the vaccine into vials and ensuring strict quality controls. Psaki
said the Biden administration was using its powers under the Defense Production Act to help Merck retool
to work on the production.
The news was first reported by The Washington Post.
Merck halted its own plans to develop a coronavirus vaccine earlier this year, finding that their
candidates were generating an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines. It said it
would instead focus its work on developing treatments for COVID-19.
Compared to the two-dose versions produced by Moderna and Pfizer, the J&J vaccine is less
resource intensive to distribute and administer, making it a critical piece to U.S. plans to spread
vaccinations around the world — but only once Americans are inoculated. The J&J vaccine can be
stored for months at refrigerated temperatures, rather than frozen, and doesn’t require patients to
return for a second dose three or four weeks later.
Ahead of the White House announcement, Merck wouldn’t discuss a deal with the New Brunswick, New
Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson to make doses of the COVID-19 vaccine or say whether it is
talking with other companies about helping to make theirs.
"Merck remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and
to preparing to address future pandemics," the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company said in a
Associated Press medical writer Linda Johnson contributed to this report from Trenton, N.J.