Merck snares $269M in U.S. funding to prep manufacturing for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine

After an unceremonious exit from the COVID-19 vaccine race, Merck & Co. has been sizing up opportunities to lend its expertise to the fight. Now, it's sewn up a deal to boost supplies of Johnson & Johnson's shot and scored government funding to see the unlikely partnership through. 

The HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will chip in up to $268.8 million to upgrade and leverage two of Merck's U.S. plants to produce J&J's adenovirus-based vaccine.

Merck’s tie-up with J&J’s Janssen unit, announced Tuesday at the White House, will see the vaccine giant chip in on drug substance, formulation and vial filling for J&J's single-dose shot.

During the first days of the Biden Administration, officials realized J&J was lagging on its production targets, prompting a government-brokered tie-up, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. The “wartime effort” could potentially double Johnson & Johnson’s expected shot capacity, officials said, though Merck's support won't come immediately.

It could take around two months to get the fill-finish plant up and running, and several months more for the plant making vaccine substance, an unnamed source familiar with the process told The Post. 

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Armed with BARDA funding, Merck will “adapt and make available” two existing manufacturing sites to speed up vaccine production. The upgrades will also prep the plants to make COVID-19 therapeutics.

Merck will receive $105 million from BARDA to start, issued via the Defense Production Act, to convert, upgrade and equip its facilities to turn out Johnson & Johnson’s shot. President Joe Biden invoked the act to speed access to materials for production, such as equipment, machinery and supplies like single-use bags, the HHS said in a release.

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When reached for comment, Merck couldn’t say when manufacturing might start or which specific facilities were being tapped in the effort.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine passed muster with the FDA over the weekend. The company, “leaving no stone unturned” to boost production, to hear CEO Alex Gorsky tell it, had 4 million doses to ship at launch, and before the Merck tie-up had planned 20 million total for March and 100 million by the end of June.

The Merck-J&J deal is just the latest in a string of rivalries-turned-partnerships amid the pandemic—and Merck isn’t the first Big Pharma pitching in on J&J’s shot, either. Sanofi is onboard to support vaccine production in Europe.

Sanofi, along with Swiss juggernaut Novartis, has also inked partnerships with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. And on the therapeutics front, Roche has joined forces with Regeneron on its antibody cocktail, while Amgen is chipping in on Eli Lilly’s.

Meanwhile, Merck says it is pumping cash into its global vaccine manufacturing network as part of a planned $20 billion-plus in capital investments from 2020 through the end of 2024. And the company is “actively involved” in talks with governments, public health agencies and industry players to find other ways it can lend a hand to the pandemic fight.

“We are steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic as part of the remarkable efforts of the entire medical and scientific community,” Mike Nally, EVP of human health at Merck, said in a release.