WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that there would be enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine available for the entire adult population in the United States by the end of May, although he said it would take longer to actually inoculate everyone, and he urged people to remain vigilant by wearing masks.
Biden had previously said there would be enough doses by the end of July. On Tuesday, he said the faster production of the vaccine was in part the result of an agreement by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. to help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under an unusual deal brokered by the White House.
He said that agreement, along with other efforts by the government to help Johnson & Johnson produce more doses quickly, would substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus have been found in the United States.
“As a consequence of the stepped up process that I ordered, and just outlined, this country will have enough vaccine supply as a target for every adult in America by the end of May,” Biden said. “By the end of May. That’s progress. Important progress.”
The arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Biden described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic” and said it harks back to his vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns waged during World War II.
“This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” the president said.
Both Trump and Biden administration officials had explored enlisting Merck’s help in manufacturing vaccines developed by either Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson. But Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the White House deserved credit for bringing the deal to fruition.
“There’s a difference between conversations and it moving forward,” she said. “I’m only conveying what got it across the finish line.”
Just how quickly Merck will be able to ramp up is unclear. It will take months for the company to convert its facilities to manufacture and package a vaccine that it did not invent, according to two people familiar with Johnson & Johnson’s operations who were not authorized to speak publicly. But one federal official with knowledge of the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the administration hoped the deal would eventually double the doses that Johnson & Johnson could have manufactured on its own.
Although company executives have promised that the firm will catch up this spring, Johnson & Johnson has been running behind on its manufacturing targets as it tries to ramp up at its new plant in Baltimore, Maryland. Its initial shipments of doses, delivered this week to states, were manufactured at its plant in the Netherlands.
Under the new agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
One facility will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance” — the vaccine itself.
Psaki said that the federal government would invoke the Defense Production Act to help Merck obtain necessary supplies and equipment, and had also asked the Defense Department to strengthen Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing effort.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the third to receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration — following Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
And the pace of the nation’s vaccination effort has been steadily accelerating. As of Monday, about 50.7 million people had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including about 25.5 million people who had been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines performed somewhat better in clinical trials, all three vaccines are considered safe and effective. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has some advantages: It requires only one shot, and studies show it may curb spread of the virus.
The other two vaccines use a new technology called mRNA, which allowed for faster design and testing of vaccine but resulted in a product that required more stringent storage conditions. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which uses viruses to deliver genes into cells, can keep for three months at normal refrigeration temperatures, making it easier to distribute and easier for pharmacies and clinics to stock. At $10 a dose, it is also cheaper than the other two.
Johnson & Johnson’s $1 billion federal contract, signed last year when it had just started developing the vaccine, called for it to deliver 37 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million doses by the end of June. The company has now said it can deliver only 20 million doses this month, and senior administration officials have said the vast bulk of those will only be ready in the final weeks of March.
This week, states will receive 3.9 million doses that were manufactured at a Dutch plant and bottled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Johnson & Johnson is expected to mass produce the vaccine at a new Baltimore plant operated by a company called Emergent BioSolutions. Catalent, a different firm, will bottle the doses.
The FDA’s authorization for emergency use, granted late Saturday, covered the Dutch production lines and the Grand Rapids bottling operation. In about two weeks, federal regulators are expected to decide whether to amend that authorization to include the other plants, according to the two people familiar with Johnson and Johnson’s operations. Until then, they said, supply will be uneven and limited.
For nearly a year, Merck has been searching for a way to play a key role in the nation’s vaccination program. Federal officials considered a possible partnership between Merck and Pfizer or Moderna, but Psaki said the mRNA technology could not be smoothly transferred.
Even with Merck, the two people familiar with Johnson & Johnson’s operations said, retooling plants to produce the vaccine will be a laborious, monthslong process. By the time it is accomplished, demand for shots may have waned.
Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson together have pledged enough doses to inoculate at least 220 million of the roughly 260 million eligible adults in the United States by the end of May. Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines require two doses, have pledged to make available enough doses to cover another 100 million people by the end of July.
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