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Normally Competitors, Merck To Produce Vaccines For Johnson & Johnson


Pharmaceutical giants Merck and Johnson & Johnson are normally competitors, but the Biden administration announced today that Merck will help make Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, which was authorized by the FDA over the weekend.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May.

SHAPIRO: NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk with us about it.

Hi, Sydney.


SHAPIRO: So Merck has typically been one of the world's biggest vaccine producers. And just for context, wasn't it initially working on its own vaccine against COVID-19?

LUPKIN: Yes, it was working on two vaccine candidates. But in late January, it announced that it was discontinuing its work on them. That's because the results of early clinical trials were disappointing. The vaccine candidates didn't trigger a significant enough immune response.

SHAPIRO: And so explain why Merck is helping Johnson & Johnson when we didn't see that kind of a collaboration with Pfizer or Moderna.

LUPKIN: Well, Johnson & Johnson seems to be behind on its production schedule. I took a look at its contract with the federal government, and that says Johnson & Johnson is supposed to deliver 37 million doses by the end of this month. However, the company will only deliver around 20 million doses by the end of March. And that's according to a Johnson & Johnson executive who testified at a congressional hearing last week. So it's only able to deliver a little more than half of what it originally expected in that time frame.

SHAPIRO: And how is the boost from Merck likely to make a difference?

LUPKIN: So this is going to involve two Merck facilities. One is going to make the substance at the heart of the vaccine, and the other is going to do something called fill-finish, meaning it will fill vaccine vials and get them ready for distribution. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says these were two bottlenecks Johnson & Johnson was facing.


JEN PSAKI: These obviously are two companies that are historically been competitors. So the fact that they are coming together speaks to the ability of this administration broadly to bring them to the table and work together to address the pandemic in the country.

LUPKIN: She called it historic and unprecedented.

SHAPIRO: Is that help from Merck going to be enough to make up for the 17 million or so doses by the end of the month that Johnson & Johnson was expected to provide?

LUPKIN: Well, adding a facility can help manufacturers as much as double their production, but the administration hasn't said how many doses Merck will produce. Generally speaking, it typically takes a while for facilities to get everything in place to really get up and running. They need the right equipment, supplies, ingredients. In some cases, the equipment hasn't even been made yet. So even with the Biden administration pushing Merck to get priority access to these things, it will probably take at least a few months to make a dent in production. Johnson & Johnson has until the end of June to deliver 100 million doses under its contract, but now they're expected to come at the end of May.

SHAPIRO: And we just heard Biden at the beginning of this segment say that there should be enough doses for every adult in the U.S. by the end of May. How essential are these doses in that effort?

LUPKIN: Even before the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was authorized, the United States had ordered enough Pfizer and Moderna doses to vaccinate everyone. Those doses are due by the end of July. The additional Johnson & Johnson doses are a big help though because they're one dose and they don't need to be kept in ultra-cold freezers. So logistically, they'll be easier to distribute. Overall, the Johnson & Johnson doses will help get the country vaccinated faster.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin.

Thank you.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.