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Merck to help rival Johnson & Johnson make COVID-19 vaccine

A healthcare worker holds vials containing doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus.
A healthcare worker holds vials containing doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus.PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images

The pharmaceutical giant Merck will help manufacture the newly authorized single-shot COVID-19 vaccine of its rival Johnson & Johnson, buoying public health experts who had criticized the latter company for only having 4 million doses to immediately roll out despite receiving about $1.5 billion from US taxpayers.

Dr. Dan Barouch, head of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which licensed vaccine technology to Johnson & Johnson, said the collaboration between the rival New Jersey-based drug makers was extraordinary.

“This historic partnership between Merck and JNJ will greatly accelerate the rollout of the JNJ vaccine at a time that we need to accelerate the vaccine campaign in the US and throughout the world,” he said in an e-mail, referencing Johnson & Johnson’s stock symbol. He had no details to share, and the companies declined to confirm the deal.

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President Biden is scheduled to announce the collaboration Tuesday afternoon, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

Under the arrangement, Merck will dedicate two facilities in the United States to Johnson & Johnson’s shots, said the Post. One will provide the “fill-finish” services that customarily conclude the manufacturing process, when vials are filled and packaged for distribution. The other facility will make the vaccine, which senior administration officials said has the potential to double what Johnson & Johnson could make on its own.

Johnson & Johnson said after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization Saturday that it would ship about 4 million doses within days and 20 million by the end of March. It is the third vaccine authorized for use in the United States, behind the ones made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Cambridge-based Moderna.

The infusion of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is expected to ease the supply shortage and expand the number of people who can get vaccinated this spring. The company has estimated it will have shipped 100 million doses by the end of June.

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Some medical experts told the Globe on Saturday that they were disappointed the pharmaceutical giant was producing only a few million doses immediately, given that US taxpayers paid the firm at least $1.5 billion through Operation Warp Speed to develop the vaccine and provide 100 million shots.

“Three to four million doses is spit in the ocean,” said Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who noted that inoculations were recently postponed at a nearby mass vaccination site because shipments of Moderna’s vaccine were delayed. “J&J is much larger than Moderna. Why didn’t they get production up to scale?”

In late January, Merck said it would stop developing the existing formulations of two vaccine candidates, due to inadequate immune responses to the shots, as reported by STAT News and other outlets.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.