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March 2, 2021, 2:36 p.m. EST

U.S. COVID vaccine supply to be boosted by Merck helping make J&J vaccine

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Ciara Linnane

The U.S. COVID-19 vaccine program got a welcome jolt on Tuesday in the news that one of the biggest vaccine makers in the world will help make Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose jab, potentially doubling the supply from what J&J could achieve on its own.

President Joe Biden will announce later Tuesday that Merck & Co. /zigman2/quotes/209956077/composite MRK +0.88% is teaming up with J&J /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ +1.05% in an “unprecedented historic step,” his press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing. Biden is scheduled to address the pandemic at an event planned for 4:15 p.m. Eastern with Vice President Kamala Harris also expected to attend.

The unusual deal that will see the two rival drugmakers work together was brokered by the federal government as it works to expand manufacturing of the vaccine, which was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday.

Merck is one of the world’s biggest vaccine makers but its own effort to develop an effective COVID vaccine failed . The U.S. vaccine program has been delayed by a shortage of supplies of the other two vaccines to receive authorization, one developed by Pfizer Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +1.03% and German partner BioNTech SE /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX -2.87% and one developed by Moderna Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -1.84% . Those two vaccines use the same mRNA technology, require two doses weeks apart and need to be stored at low temperatures, making them trickier to administer.

Merck will dedicate two facilities in the U.S. to the effort with one providing “fill-finish” services, putting vaccine in vials for distribution, while the other will make the vaccine itself, Psaki said.

The U.S. government will help by invoking the Defense Production Act to equip the Merck facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the vaccine and will ask the Department of Defense to provide the daily logistical support to strengthen J&J’s effort, she said.

“You often don’t see such fierce competitors partner to increase production capacity of pharmaceutical products, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,” said Kaitlin Wowak , assistant professor of IT, analytics and operations at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, who specializes in supply chain disruptions including product shortages.

“This partnership will significantly increase the production capacity and distribution speed of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine, making it accessible to more people in a shorter amount of time once Merck’s production facilities are up and running.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Monday 96.4 million doses had been distributed to states, 76.9 million doses had been administered and 50.7 million Americans had received one or more doses, equal to 15.3% of the population.

The U.S. added 56,672 new COVID cases on Monday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,425 people died. The U.S. has averaged 67,470 new cases a day for the past week, down 21% from the average two weeks earlier.

CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky reiterated her concerns on Monday that the recent decline in case numbers appears to be stalling, and the U.S. could see a fourth case surge before enough people have been vaccinated.

Dr. Mike Ryan, World Health Organization’s executive director of emergency services, said at a briefing in Geneva that it’s unrealistic to expect the pandemic to be over by the end of 2021, after global cases rose last week for the first time in seven weeks.

The virus “is very much in control,” he said, while conceding that vaccinating healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups will help remove the “tragedy.”

“If the vaccines begin to impact not only on death and not only on hospitalization, but have a significant impact on transmission dynamics and transmission risk, then I believe we will accelerate toward controlling this pandemic,” he said.

In other news:

• A single dose of either the AstraZeneca–Oxford vaccine or the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 shot cuts the risk of hospital admission among older adults by more than 80% percent,  Public Health England  (PHE) said, citing a preprint study, MarketWatch’s Lina Saigol reported. The real world study, which was published on Monday and hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, showed that  protection  against any COVID-19 symptoms in those older than 70 ranged between 57% and 61% for one dose of the Pfizer–BioNTech shot, and between 60% and 73% for the AstraZeneca–Oxford one four weeks after the first shot. PHE said the data suggested the vaccine from U.S. drug company Pfizer caused an 83% reduction in COVID-19 deaths among the over-80s. There were no equivalent data for the vaccine from Anglo-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca, which began to be administered at a later date.

Read: Pfizer vaccine can reduce transmission after 1 dose, new study finds

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