UPDATE 4-Merck to help make Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine -White House official

(Adds details from White House briefing)

March 2 (Reuters) - Merck & Co Inc will help make rival Johnson & Johnson's single-shot COVID-19 vaccine in a partnership set to be announced on Tuesday by U.S. President Joe Biden, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

J&J's vaccine production has been slower than promised, and the Biden administration pushed the deal to try to improve output.

"As soon as we learned about the fact that Johnson and Johnson was behind in the manufacturing steps and efforts, we took steps to ensure we can expedite that and partner them with one of the world's biggest manufacturers," Psaki told a White House briefing.

Psaki said the U.S. government will invoke the Defense Production Act in order to equip Merck's plants to be able to produce the J&J vaccine.

She said Biden should provide more detail later on Tuesday. He is scheduled to speak on COVID-19 at 4:15 p.m. (2115 GMT)

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 Inc and BioNTech and Moderna Inc - require two doses.

Under its contract, J&J 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.

It 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 Inc, J&J Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels said in an interview on Monday.

J&J did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Merck arrangement.

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 https://wapo.st/304E8ZQ on Tuesday. (https://wapo.st/304E8ZQ)

"Merck remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic," the company said.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Michael Erman in New York, Nandita Bose, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Caroline Humer, Arun Koyyur and Jonathan Oatis)

03/02/2021 18:52

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