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How Competitors Merck and J&J Started Working Together on the COVID-19 Vaccine


It’s not every day that two rivals in the healthcare industry decide to work together. That’s why many were surprised earlier this week when President Joe Biden announced that Johnson & Johnson and its rival, Merck, would partner to help J&J fulfill its COVID-19 vaccine order contract. The news speeds up the president’s timeline to get every adult vaccinated in the U.S. within two months.

So, how did these two giants manage to come together?

Lending J&J a Hand

Public health experts have been eager for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to arrive. With just one dose, the drug is expected to speed up the vaccination process. But even before the company received emergency use authorization from the FDA, it was clear J&J wasn’t going to be able to meet its production target. Last August, the government agreed to pay J&J for up to 100 million doses of the drug as soon as it got the green light from regulators, but now the company needs help getting all these doses out the door.

To accelerate the vaccination process, President Biden has been negotiating with manufacturers to make sure they have what they need to get the job done. Early talks with Moderna and Pfizer lead to increased production commitments.

Now, Biden is doing the same with J&J. According to White House aides, the president took a call with company executives in February that was only supposed to last 15 minutes but ended up dragging on for two hours.

“The basic conclusion of that call was, we’ve got to think much bigger and much bolder. We have to take bold action and overwhelm this,” said a senior administration official who was listening in.

That call helped bring J&J to the negotiating table in terms of ramping up production. According to the WH official, both J&J and Merck had discussed working together to boost production before Biden took office, but the talks broke down after some time. After a few phone calls between the two CEOs, however, both companies will now partner to make sure there’s enough vaccine for every adult by the end of May, much earlier than the president’s original target of the end of July.

“They understood this was a wartime effort. This was their legacy. This was their time,” the administration official added.

It will still take several months for providers to administer all the shots, but this partnership is sure to speed things along.

How the White House Is Getting Involved

The president will use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to help both companies reach the new goal. The DPA gives the president the authority to call upon private companies to help with the war effort, including global pandemics.

Biden said J&J will run its facilities 24/7 to make sure there are enough doses to go around.

In a statement, Merck said it will receive up to $268.8 million in government funding to adjust its production facilities so that it can produce the drug. The company announced back in January that it had discontinued its own foray into developing a possible COVID-19 vaccine, including the testing of two therapeutic candidates.

Despite the push to get more vials filled and out the door, there’s no guarantee that these companies will reach these goals. President Biden acknowledged that plenty of things can still go wrong and that investing in more vaccines will help the country prepare for any possible vaccine shortages.

“There’s always a chance that we’ll encounter unexpected challenges, or will there be a new need. A lot can happen, a lot can change. And we need to be prepared,” Biden said during this week’s press conference.

The administration is also racing against the spread of highly infectious new variants. Health experts want as many people to get vaccinated as soon as possible to stave them off.

The U.S. has been criticized for holding onto millions of doses of the vaccine when other countries have yet to get a single vial. “If we have a surplus, we’ll share it with this rest of the world,” President Biden added during the press conference.

During his national address on Thursday night, Biden said that he will direct the states to make every adult American eligible for a vaccine by the start of May. He wants everyone to at least get in line for their shot by that time. He also pointed to July 4th as a possible return to normal.

“If we all do our part, this country will be vaccinated soon, our economy will be on the mend, our kids will be back in school, and we’ll have proven once again that this country can do anything,” Biden said.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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