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Competitors Unite to Fight COVID-19: Merck Agrees to Manufacture Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

We have seen biopharmaceutical companies around the world partnering to tackle COVID-19 in diagnostics, treatment development, vaccine development, and other relief efforts, including monetary and in-kind donations of lab equipment, instruments, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

At this point of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a significant focus on increasing the COVID-19 vaccine supply and efficiently rolling it out.

On March 2, 2021, President Biden announced a historic partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson (J&J), in collaboration with the United States Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), to speed up the manufacturing of J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine, which received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late February. This is yet another innovative partnership between two pharma giants in the battle to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In remarks at the White House, President Biden stated:

“Two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world who are usually competitors are working together on the vaccine … This is the type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II.”

In particular, Merck has entered into multiple agreements with J&J and BARDA to “adapt and make available a number of existing manufacturing facilities” for the production of J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine to boost manufacturing and supply of this vaccine in the United States. Under the deal with BARDA, Merck will receive $268.8 million to retrofit its manufacturing facilities for the J&J vaccine, including the key “fill-finish” part of the manufacturing cycle. J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine is the first one-shot COVID-19 vaccine to receive an EUA from the FDA.

With the Merck production capacity in place by the middle of the year, J&J will be well-positioned to rapidly produce booster shots of its vaccine, if necessary, to address any variants or mutations of the virus. With at least one Merck facility producing the vaccine and one being used for “fill-finish” services, J&J potentially has the ability to double its production capacity going forward.

This partnership is part of a key trend in the pharmaceutical industry in the battle against COVID-19. For instance, Sanofi has partnered with J&J to more rapidly produce the Janssen vaccine in Europe, the Serum Institute of India has partnered with AstraZeneca (AZ) to produce AZ’s vaccine for India and other developing nations, CureVac has partnered with Bayer, GSK, and Novartis to speed the production of its vaccine, and Novavax has partnered with the Serum Institute of India, amongst others, to produce over 2 billion doses of the Novavax vaccine in 2021.

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