Merck, Johnson & Johnson to strike 'wartime' COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing deal: WaPo

Merck
Merck is reportedly entering a vaccine production partnership with Johnson & Johnson. (Merck)

Merck & Co., a leading vaccine player worldwide, has been largely absent during the COVID-19 vaccine race. Not anymore: The drugmaker is set to partner with Johnson & Johnson to boost production of its newly authorized shot, The Washington Post reports.

President Joe Biden is set to unveil the deal Tuesday, the newspaper reports. During the first days of his administration, officials realized J&J had fallen behind on production targets, so officials jumped in to coordinate a tie-up between the companies.

Recognizing it's a "wartime effort," the companies agreed to join forces when they might otherwise be rivals, one unnamed official told the newspaper.

Merck will provide access to two U.S. manufacturing sites—one where workers will make the actual vaccine substance, and another where it will be filled into vials and packaged for shipping. The partnership could potentially double J&J's expected vaccine capacity, officials said.

A Merck spokesman said the company "remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics." He didn't confirm or deny newspaper's reporting.

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News of the tie-up comes right after the J&J vaccine won emergency use authorization from the FDA. For Merck, it follows an embarrassing exit from the COVID-19 vaccine race after early-stage programs posted disappointing data.

After J&J's vaccine authorization over the weekend, CEO Alex Gorsky told Bloomberg the company was "leaving no stone unturned" in its efforts to boost production. J&J has said it would have around 4 million doses to ship at launch, plus 20 million in total this month and 100 million by the end of June.

Still, the company is “doing everything we can partnering with the U.S. government and other external manufacturers to see what we can do to accelerate and increase that number as well," Gorsky told Bloomberg.

RELATED: Merck canned its own COVID-19 vaccines. Now, it's in talks to manufacture other companies' shots

Merck has been teasing potential manufacturing tie-ups as well. Several weeks ago, a spokesman said the company was “actively involved” in discussions with governments, health agencies and other pharmaceutical companies to “identify the areas of pandemic response where we can play a role, including potential support for production of authorized vaccines."

But don't expect an immediate boost in supply from the partnership. It'll likely take months to get the sites up and running to start churning out new doses.

The drug giants won't be the only Big Pharma companies to team up to fight the pandemic. J&J has already enlisted Sanofi to help with vaccine production in Europe, while Pfizer and BioNTech have unveiled partnerships with Sanofi and Novartis.

On the antibody side of the fight, Roche and Regeneron have joined forces to boost capacity, as have Amgen and Eli Lilly.