Merck will manufacture doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine under an unusual deal that US president Joe Biden is expected to announce on Tuesday in an attempt to boost production of the single-shot jab, which has been bedevilled by manufacturing delays.
Ronald Klain, White House Chief of Staff, tweeted that Biden would make remarks on the agreement on Tuesday afternoon after the Washington Post reported that the Big Pharma rivals would work together to increase supplies of the vaccine.
The White House helped to engineer the deal between the competitors after J&J, which was granted an emergency use authorisation for its vaccine at the weekend, experienced production hold-ups
US officials had hoped that the authorisation of J&J’s vaccine would bolster the country’s inoculation drive. But they have warned that after an initial 4m doses are delivered this week, supplies will be “uneven” for the rest of March.
J&J had previously pledged to deliver 10m doses by the end of February.
J&J was held back in part by problems at Catalent, a key supplier, which had to resort to checking vials by hand for two weeks after trouble tuning up its automatic processes, the Financial Times reported at the weekend.
Catalent, which also fills vials for Moderna, said “short-term variations” are normal but that it is on track to meet its vaccine production commitments.
J&J also had to transfer technology, in effect building copies of exact production lines, to expand into new larger factories in the US and the Netherlands. This process, while faster than usual, did not happen as quickly as hoped, according to people familiar with the matter.
While J&J is the world’s largest healthcare company, it is not nearly as experienced in vaccines as Merck and does not have the same kind of capabilities to make inoculations at scale.
Merck is one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, with many shots already approved including for Ebola and HPV.
However, Merck has largely stayed on the sidelines of the Covid-19 inoculation drive. It was slow to enter the race to develop a vaccine and then abandoned its efforts in January after disappointing results.
Sanofi, another large vaccine maker that has fallen behind in the race to develop a Covid-19 shot, has agreed to help boost supplies of the J&J vaccine in Europe, announcing last month that it would use its capacity to fill vials.
J&J received the third EUA for a Covid-19 vaccine in the US. The vaccine should be easier to roll out than those from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, because it is only one shot — meaning people do not have to return for a second appointment — and can be kept at normal refrigerator temperatures.
Merck declined to comment on the pending announcement, saying only that it remained “steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics”.
J&J also declined to comment.