Johnson & Johnson, Merck partner to speed up COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Photo of COVID Vaccine
US Secretary of Defense/Creative Commons
A man is injected with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

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President Joe Biden invoked a partnership between Johnson & Johnson and its pharmaceutical competitor, Merck, to expedite vaccine production and distribution.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has recently been approved by the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup and the Food and Drug Administration for use, according to a press release from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Alongside the presidentially-mandated collaboration, this will pave the path to herd immunity, according to UC Berkeley public health professor emeritus John Swartzberg.

“The effectiveness of the vaccine is really great when looking at what people care about — if it will prevent you from getting seriously sick and hospitalized,” Swartzberg said. “Yes, (the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) will magnificently prevent all of that.”

In contrast to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose and can be stored at refrigerator-produced temperatures. Campus epidemiology professor Arthur Reingold noted that these attributes make it easier to widely distribute.

Those inoculated will experience less severe sickness if they are infected and will not be at risk of producing new variants, Swartzberg added. The vaccine will also reduce the ability of an immunized individual to spread the virus if they are reinfected.

Because it went through trials globally in late 2020 and early 2021 — when the world saw a spike in cases — the Johnson & Johnson vaccines numbers are not comparable to those of Pfizer and Moderna, which had trials that occurred earlier in the year, Swartzberg said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was also the only vaccine tested against new variants arising internationally, Swartzberg added.

“We need to be careful about that language of effectiveness,” Reingold said. “It appears to be working quite well in regards to these important things — preventing hospitalizations and deaths.”

Swartzberg noted that Merck is one of the most experienced pharmaceutical companies in the world when it comes to vaccines. Merck will begin producing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in two of its facilities, according to Olaf Groth, a professional faculty member at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Because Merck had initially embarked on creating its own vaccine, it probably had earmarked available manufacturing capacity, Groth said. Leveraging this unutilized capacity makes the collaboration economically sensible, Groth noted, especially as the U.S. seeks to create vaccines not only for its population but the world.

“It’s good for these companies to start collaborating now to scale out into that longer horizon to begin creating billions of doses,” Groth said. “The virus doesn’t care about borders.”

Groth highlighted the importance of a presidential administration unafraid to use all available levers to quickly and centrally control the pandemic. Pushing competitors to collaborate is crucial from both economic and public health standpoints, Groth added.

Newsom described how California, now equipped with three “remarkable” vaccines, is constructing a system to inoculate the populace as soon as vaccines are allocated.

“I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to receive any of these three vaccines to avail themselves of the opportunity to help us get as many people protected as possible, as quickly as possible,” Reingold said. “That’s in everyone’s best interest.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected] and follower her on Twitter at @katherineshok.