Merck to help produce Johnson & Johnson vaccine

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President Joe Biden will announce Tuesday that Merck will manufacture doses of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine in a bid to produce at least 100 million shots by this summer, according to two senior administration officials.

The Biden administration helped broker the deal after reports earlier this year that J&J was struggling with production delays and would not meet its original promise to provide 12 million shots by the end of February. Just four million were on hand when the Food and Drug Administration authorized the vaccine on Saturday.

White House officials have long considered the J&J shot critical to the country’s effort to curb the virus because it is given as a single dose and is easier to store than other available vaccines. J&J has assured government officials that it can deliver 20 million doses through March and 100 million by this summer.

The White House and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Washington Post first reported Biden’s planned announcement.

Merck will contribute two facilities to aiding J&J’s production: One will “fill-finish” vaccines, or fill vials and package the shots for distribution, while another will help with producing the vaccine itself.

“Merck remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics,” a spokesperson told POLITICO. The company did not answer questions about how long it would take to begin production and how many shots it expects to contribute.

J&J did not immediately respond to request for comment.

But the assistance of Merck, one of the biggest U.S. drug manufacturers — which scrapped its own plans for a coronavirus vaccine in January — could produce millions more shots at a critical time for mass vaccination efforts.

Biden has pledged that every American will be able to get a vaccine by July. Public health officials and state leaders say that J&J’s vaccine could play a critical role in vaccinating millions of skeptical or hard-to-reach people.

“It could absolutely allow for expanded availability of vaccine in some temporary clinics, some pop-up mobile sites, and those locations that do not have cold storage capacity,” Marcella Nunez-Smith, who heads the White House’s Covid Health Equity Task Force, said during a Monday briefing dedicated largely to promoting the J&J vaccine. “For this vaccination campaign to be successful, the vaccines will have to reach everyone.”

But White House officials and CDC experts also emphasized Monday that the shot would not be specifically directed to mobile clinics, community health centers and other channels aimed at specific populations, for fear that people would misinterpret the shot as different and even inferior to its peers produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.

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