Johnson & Johnson cuts production of underperforming COVID vaccine: WSJ

After mounting a large research and production effort in support of its COVID-19 vaccine, Johnson & Johnson is scaling back production because of low demand, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In recent months, the company has ended COVID-19 vaccine production partnerships with contract manufacturing giant Catalent and pharmaceutical powerhouse Sanofi, according to the newspaper. Plus, after J&J inked a highly touted deal with pharma compatriot Merck, the companies are entering arbitration because the deal failed to meet expectations, WSJ reports.

J&J "continues to focus on ensuring our COVID-19 vaccine is available where people are in need, and we currently have hundreds of millions of doses available to vaccinate people around the world," a spokesperson said Tuesday.

The moves come after J&J's 2021 launch of the single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. Initially viewed as a promising alternative to the mRNA shots from Pfizer and Moderna, J&J's vaccine stumbled almost immediately when federal officials paused the launch to investigate the risk of rare blood clots.

The pause only lasted 10 days but had an outsized effect on the public's perception of the shot and its uptake trajectory. Since the vaccine's debut in early 2021, nearly 19 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the U.S. That compares with around 430 million Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine doses, and around 267 million Moderna doses, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

J&J's shot also failed to live up to sales expectations. The drugmaker originally expected $3 billion to $3.5 billion in 2022 sales but dropped that guidance last spring after a weak first-quarter performance. Through the first nine months of 2022, the shot had generated $1.49 billion.

Speaking of unmet expectations, J&J's 2021 partnership with South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare has not yielded any vaccine orders so far, a senior Aspen executive told WSJ. Aspen signed up to produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses and sell them under its own branding, but large purchasers have instead gone with vaccines from other companies, he said.

Meanwhile, this isn't the first report of J&J deprioritizing production of its COVID-19 shot. Last November, the company paused production of the shot in the Netherlands to make doses of an experimental vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, The New York Times reported.