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Merck to Help Johnson & Johnson Make Its Covid-19 Vaccine--3rd Update

03/02/2021 | 02:07pm

By Sabrina Siddiqui and Tarini Parti

Merck & Co. will help produce Johnson & Johnson's single-dose Covid-19 vaccine, President Biden plans to announce Tuesday, as the administration pushes to get the shot to the American public.

The president is expected to make the announcement while giving an update on the pandemic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. The assistance from Merck, a competitor to Johnson & Johnson, will help speed up production after the one-shot vaccine was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration Saturday.

J&J declined to comment. 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."

Ms. Psaki said one of the Merck facilities will help "fill-finish" the vaccine -- a step in which vials are filled with vaccines, capped and readied for shipment -- and the other 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.

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.

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.

The Biden administration has said it expects to have enough Covid-19 shots for all Americans by the end of July based on agreements to purchase vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. Ms. Psaki said ramping up the production of J&J's vaccine will speed up that timeline.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

03-02-21 1407ET

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