Biden: U.S. on track to have enough COVID-19 vaccines for all adults by end of May

FILE PHOTO: The Merck logo is seen at a gate to the Merck & Co campus in Linden, New Jersey
FILE PHOTO: The Merck logo is seen at a gate to the Merck & Co campus in Linden, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

President Joe Biden on Tuesday said the United States was on track to have enough vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May.

Biden announced that Merck & Co Inc will help make rival Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine in a partnership that he said was similar to those seen during World War II. With three vaccines now available, Biden said he was confident the country would reach his goal of delivering 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in 100 days.

“As I always said, this is a wartime effort, and every action has bee put on the table, including breakthrough approaches,” Biden said. “We also invoked the Defense Production Act to equip two Merck facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the J&J vaccine. And with the urging of my administration, Johnson and Johnson is also taking new production to safely accelerate vaccine production.”

J&J’s vaccine production has been slower than promised. Under its contract, the company was supposed to deliver 12 million doses by the end of February, but had less than 4 million ready to ship when the vaccine was authorized on Saturday.

Biden said the giant’s pharmaceutical companies will now operate 24/7. The Defense Department will also provide logistical support for its daily operation to ensure vaccine production.

“We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” Biden said. “When we came into office, the prior administration had contracted for not nearly enough vaccine to cover adults in America. We rectified that.”

Johnson & Johnson expects to be able to deliver another 16 million doses by the end of the month – still well short of its previous commitments – but will not ship any next week. The company has said it will be able to provide the full 100 million doses it has agreed to supply by its original midyear deadline.

The next shipments are waiting on regulatory approval of new manufacturing operations run by its partner, contract drugmaker Catalent, J&J Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels said in an interview on Monday.

Stoffels also said the company was looking for more partners to expand its production capacity. More doses sooner could speed the U.S. vaccination effort considerably, because as a one-dose vaccine it is possible to inoculate twice as many people with the same number of shots. The other two U.S.-approved vaccines — from Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna — require two doses.

J&J’s vaccine substance is made in the United States at a plant operated by Emergent BioSolutions Inc, as well as in facilities in the Netherlands and India.

There are two U.S. factories – run by Catalent and Grand River Asceptic Manufacturing – where the vaccine is finished and put in vials. The company also has partners with fill-finish capacity in Spain, Italy, India and South Africa.

Merck’s collaboration with J&J comes after Merck scrapped development of its own COVID-19 vaccine candidates in January, Merck last month said it was working on a deal to open up its manufacturing capacity to other vaccine makers.

The partnership is the latest example of large drugmakers working together to help produce COVID-19 vaccines to meet the global demand. Swiss drugmaker Novartis signed an agreement in January to fill vials for Pfizer and BioNTech’s shot, while French drugmaker Sanofi SA will help fill and pack millions of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine starting in July.

Merck will dedicate two U.S. facilities to J&J’s vaccine, according to a report in the Washington Post, which first reported the news of the arrangement on Tuesday.

This story was updated on March 2 at 5:10 p.m.