Merck to help produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine to speed up supply

Merck to help produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine to speed up supply
The first box containing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine heads down the conveyor to an awaiting transport truck at the McKesson facility in Shepherdsville, Ky., Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)

Drug maker Merck & Co will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved coronavirus vaccine in an effort to expand supply more quickly, a Biden administration official has confirmed.

The announcement came as the White House looks to speed up 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 before it received emergency use authorisation on Saturday.

The company said it was on track to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.

Facing questions about the slipping delivery schedule, J&J vice president Richard Nettles told legislators on Capitol Hill last week that the company faced “significant challenges” because of a “highly complex” manufacturing process.

(PA Graphics)

The assistance from Merck is expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand supply further, but the administration did not immediately provide specifics.

President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech on 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 specialised manufacturing lines to produce vaccines would take months.

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 others.

It said it would instead focus on developing treatments for Covid-19.

Compared with 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 part of US 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 does not require patients to return for a second dose three or four weeks later.

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