BREAKING: Merck throws manufacturing might behind Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Great news, especially given the disappointment from having Merck sidelined in the COVID-19 vaccine sweepstakes. The manufacturing potential in this partnership could push Johnson & Johnson to the vanguard of the herd-immunity effort:

President Joe Biden will announce Tuesday that Merck & Co. will help manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot coronavirus vaccine, a senior administration official confirmed to NBC News.

The agreement could boost supply of the vaccine, which is being delivered to states this week after gaining federal approval for distribution to the public. …

The deal between the two major pharmaceutical companies, first reported by The Washington Post, was brokered by the Biden administration after officials found out that Johnson & Johnson had fallen behind in its production of its vaccine.

The partnership will involve two Merck facilities, one of which will produce the vaccine while the other carries out the last phase of the manufacturing process, the Post reported.

Apparently I wasn’t the only person who noticed that Johnson & Johnson had missed its Operation Warp Speed targets by a country mile. The Trump administration bought 100 million doses with a $1.5 billion investment in the J&J vaccine, which was supposed to go into immediate production even before the Phase 3 trials began. The US committed to essentially eating those doses if the vaccine didn’t work out, but the idea was to have the production lines fully running in order to get mass vaccination started almost immediately. The question of why that arrangement was not more closely monitored has not yet been answered.

That makes this arrangement serendipitous for both Merck and J&J. Merck missed out on the golden ticket when its candidate failed a little over a month ago. Now they can get some serious participation in the global demand for vaccines, albeit as a licensee. J&J wins too, even if they have to split proceeds with their new bestest buddies. The more they produce in the early stages, the better positioned they will be to eclipse Pfizer and Moderna, especially in non-US markets, thanks to their lighter refrigeration needs. They might even eclipse AstraZeneca in the developing world if they can really hit production highs quickly.

But how quickly can they manage that? Don’t get your hopes up too high in the short run, the Washington Post explains:

Under the arrangement, Merck will dedicate two facilities in the United States to Johnson & Johnson’s shots. One will provide “fill-finish” services, the last stage of the production process during which the vaccine substance is placed in vials and packaged for distribution. The other will make the vaccine, and has the potential to vastly increase supply, perhaps even doubling what Johnson & Johnson could make on its own, the officials said.

“It’s a historic partnership,” said one of the officials, adding that the companies “recognize this is a wartime effort.” He praised their sense of “corporate citizenship.”

The officials declined to provide details about how Merck’s involvement will affect the projected supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the timetable for distributing it. It could easily take two months to get the “fill-finish” plant ready and a few more months to equip the other facility to make the vaccine, according to a person familiar with the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

In other words, this won’t get us out of the winter sluggishness in which we find ourselves, but could accelerate the spring offensive. Until then, we will have to rely on the production expansions announced by Pfizer and Moderna to shoulder most of the load in the US effort. Thus far, that has not appeared to loosen up any new availability in Minnesota, at least, where participating pharmacies still have stopped offering new appointments to anyone regardless of their cohort status.

This is a smart move by the Biden administration, in any case. It may not pay off vaccination-wise for a few months, but this is a genuine win that will ease the political pressure on the White House after the stall of the last four weeks.