After bailing on Covid-19 vaccines, Merck will team up with J&J to produce its shot as part of unusual Big Pharma pact
Merck took a big gamble when it opted to jump into the Covid-19 vaccine race late, and made an equally momentous decision to back out in late January. Now, looking to chip in on the effort, Merck reportedly agreed to team up with one of the companies that has already crossed the finish line.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday is expected to announce a partnership between drugmakers Merck and Johnson & Johnson to jointly produce J&J’s recombinant viral vector Covid-19 vaccine that received the FDA’s emergency use authorization Saturday, the Washington Post reported.
Under the terms of the deal, which unnamed officials outlined for the Post, Merck will produce J&J’s single-shot vaccine at two facilities. One of those will handle fill-finish work — the last stage before distribution — and another will produce bulk drug substance for the shot, likely after a technology transfer. Officials told the Post the deal would potentially double J&J’s production capacity, a massive win given the drugmaker’s reported manufacturing bottleneck.
Without the Merck deal in place, J&J expected to roll out about 100 million vaccine doses before the back half of the year and hoped to churn out enough supply to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of March.
It’s a Big Pharma team-up only conceivable during the pandemic and comes after Merck decided to bow out of the race for its own Covid-19 vaccine after making a very late entry.
In late January, Merck dropped development of 2 vaccines — V590 and V591 — after taking a look at Phase I data that underperformed in terms of drumming up an immune response. Merck didn’t reveal full details on both vaccines’ failing data, but the FDA did indicate it would consider approving any efficacy above 50% for emergency use given the enormous demand.
Now, with its table cleared, Merck will pivot over to helping produce J&J’s shot. Unlike the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, J&J’s shot uses recombinant DNA delivered by an adenovirus vector and can be stored at refrigerated temps for longer periods of time. The technology is old-school by mRNA standards, and Merck should be familiar with the production demands given its long standing in the vaccine field.
Moreover, J&J’s shot only requires one dose rather than the two-dose regimen for Pfizer and Moderna. That means even a mid-scale boost in production could be a force multiplier in terms of patients vaccinated.
The financial terms of the deal weren’t reported by the Post, and officials said it would take about two months for Merck’s fill-finish plant to be up and running. Getting the actual production facility on track would take a few additional months after that, an official said.
J&J’s shot earned the FDA’s trust with just 66% efficacy in its pivotal trial in preventing mild and severe Covid-19. However, in terms of preventing hospitalizations and death, the shot performed much better, effectively showing 100% protection 28 days after vaccination.
For a look at all Endpoints News coronavirus stories, check out our special news channel.