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Johnson & Johnson : Biden Expects U.S. to Have Enough Vaccines for All Adults by End of May -- 6th Update

03/02/2021 | 09:59pm

By Tarini Parti and Sabrina Siddiqui

President Biden said the U.S. would have enough Covid-19 vaccines for all American adults by the end of May, two months earlier than he had previously said, after regulators authorized the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Merck & Co. agreed to help produce it.

Mr. Biden also called on states to give priority to teachers, school staff and child-care workers for vaccinations, as virtual learning continues for many students across the country. Several teachers unions have made vaccinations part of their negotiations for returning to in-person teaching. Mr. Biden said 30 states are giving priority to such workers for the shot.

Mr. Biden said the federal pharmacy program would give priority to teachers, and he set a goal for those workers to get at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of March.

"We're moving in the right direction," he said Tuesday. "And today's announcements are a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic."

Mr. Biden said the partnership to make the new J&J vaccine, which was cleared by regulators on Saturday, is "the type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II." He said the U.S. will have enough supply for all adults by the end of May, but it wasn't immediately clear when everyone will be able to get the shot.

The seven-day average of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in the U.S. recently hit 1.8 million a day, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

As of Monday, more than 50.7 million Americans had received at least one dose of vaccine, representing about 15.3% of the population, according to the CDC.

Mr. Biden said that even with the boost in vaccine supply, "the fight is far from over." The administration has acknowledged vaccine hesitancy could be a hurdle in getting many Americans vaccinated, and officials have said they would launch a vaccine education program as the supply increases. The administration has urged Americans to continue wearing masks and taking other precautions.

Some states are loosening restrictions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that businesses in the state will be able to operate at full capacity and state residents will no longer be required to wear masks to visit them.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday that Mr. Biden's call for states to give priority to vaccinating teachers was a good step. "Vaccinations are a key ingredient to reopening schools safely," she said.

Some state leaders and others have opposed vaccinating teachers who are healthy and have no chronic conditions ahead of senior citizens or others who have pre-existing medical issues.

Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who served on the Biden transition team's Covid-19 Advisory Board, tweeted Tuesday that the push to vaccinate teachers would take vaccines away from higher-risk people and communities of color.

"This is an ANTI-EQUITY move. Teachers skew white," Dr. Gounder tweeted, adding later "so much for valuing Black and Brown people working in critical infrastructure jobs."

J&J said it expected the collaboration with Merck to "enhance our production capacity so that we can supply beyond our current commitments." In a statement Tuesday, a Merck spokesman said the company "remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said one Merck facility will help "fill-finish" the vaccine -- a step in which vials are filled with vaccines, capped and readied for shipment -- and another will help produce the vaccine.

She said conversations between J&J and Merck were under way and the administration helped in completing the deal, in part by providing Merck with a commitment to help with upgrading its facilities for vaccine production.

An administration official said Mr. Biden was invoking the Defense Production Act to give Merck priority access to supplies, including purchase of machinery, tubes and filtration systems. The Department of Health and Human Services said it would provide an initial investment of $105 million for Merck to convert, upgrade and equip its facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the vaccine.

Ms. Psaki declined to detail the role administration officials played, but she said they took steps to help expedite manufacturing after learning J&J was behind on its production. J&J executives have said they ran into challenges in scaling manufacturing output but that they would deliver 100 million vaccines to the U.S. in the first half of 2021.

White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients worked on the deal with the two companies' chief executives and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, a person familiar with the situation said.

Administration discussions about stepping up production of the J&J vaccine began in late January, two people familiar with the situation said, and officials reached out to the companies in February. Mr. Zients kept Mr. Biden up to date on the discussions. One point of negotiation involved which facilities Merck would use to help produce the vaccine, the people said. Merck indicated that it would agree to the arrangement about two weeks ago, they said.

J&J, based in New Brunswick, N.J., had made nearly four million doses for shipments that began going out this week. The Biden administration said it expected about 20 million doses to be delivered by the end of March.

Moderna, Pfizer and J&J, without the supplement from Merck, are scheduled to supply enough doses in the U.S. in March to vaccinate about 80 million people, according to analysts from Evercore ISI. In April, enough doses will be supplied for 125 million people, assuming shots from AstraZeneca PLC and Novavax Inc. are cleared for use, according to Evercore. By the end of May, the analysts projected the U.S. will have received enough Covid-19 vaccine doses since December to fully vaccinate 345 million people.

Merck, a Kenilworth, N.J., firm, is a pioneer in vaccines, such as those to prevent mumps and shingles, but it scrapped two programs to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in January after disappointing clinical studies. The company was also slower to pursue Covid-19 vaccines, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

The partnership between J&J and Merck would mark the latest example of pharmaceutical rivals working together to make Covid-19 vaccines. Sanofi SA and Novartis AG are helping to make the shot from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech SE.

The partnership comes as Mr. Biden's administration has emphasized the urgency of vaccinating the public against Covid-19 and warned of a new and more transmissible variant that is rapidly spreading across the country.

Mr. Zients said Monday that the administration had begun distributing 3.9 million doses of the J&J vaccine to states, tribes and territories, as well as to pharmacies and community health centers. Mr. Zients said the company had communicated to the administration that supply "will be limited for the next couple of weeks" after the initial distribution but expected to deliver additional doses by the end of March.

The $1 billion contract J&J signed with the U.S. government called for it to have 12 million doses ready by the end of February. The contract allowed the company to make the deliveries up to 30 days late if it ran into delays.

--Jared Hopkins and Stephanie Armour contributed to this article.

Write to Tarini Parti at Tarini.Parti@wsj.com and Sabrina Siddiqui at Sabrina.Siddiqui@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

03-02-21 2159ET

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