Biden May Invoke Defense Production Act to Help Merck Produce New J&J Vaccine

President Joe Biden is set to announce a partnership on Tuesday between pharmaceutical company Merck and Johnson & Johnson to manufacture the latter company’s new single-shot COVID-19 vaccine. Senior administration officials indicated to The Washington Post that Biden would be invoking the Defense Production Act to ramp up production.

Administration officials told The Washington Post that the deal represents a “historic partnership,” and that the companies “recognize this is a wartime effort.” Biden will make remarks later on Tuesday about the partnership and possibly the invocation of the Defense Production Act to help Merck secure vaccine manufacturing supplies.

The partnership has the potential to double supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, administration officials said.

On Monday, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO said that the company is planning to manufacture and ship 100 million doses by June and a billion by the end of the year, though it’s not clear if he said that this would happen with the partnership in mind or not. Four million doses of the vaccine began shipping on Monday after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization over the weekend.

The administration struck a deal with Merck after Biden administration officials learned early on that the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was lagging behind schedule, The Washington Post reports.

Merck, whose own COVID vaccine effort was discontinued in January and which has a long history of vaccine development and manufacturing, will use two of their facilities to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. One will make the vaccine itself, and the other will fill the vaccine into vials and pack it up for shipment.

The partnership portends a potential emphasis by the Biden administration on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is easier to ship and store than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Since it’s a one-dose regimen, it is also easier with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to get people fully vaccinated quicker. The vaccine could eventually play an important role in providing booster shots and inoculating children, both of which the company is exploring.

Biden invoking the Defense Production Act could be crucial in the effort to get the U.S. population vaccinated quickly. The Defense Production Act, a wartime law that can be invoked by the president to compel companies to manufacture certain supplies, has been in the spotlight for much of the pandemic for its potential to help fight COVID.

Last year, then-President Donald Trump invoked the law to manufacture protective equipment for medical workers. But many say that he waited too long to invoke the law and, even so, used it very rarely. The White House suggested that they feared, bizarrely, that using it would be equivalent to left-wing overreach, according to a New York Times report. The publication found that Trump only used it six times for medical equipment despite claiming that they used it 80 times, and experts said that he could have used it much more effectively.

With the suggestion that Biden may use the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production in a tangible way, some breathed a sigh of relief. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) tweeted, “This is huge. ⁦[Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin)]⁩ and I begged and begged the Trump Administration to use the Defense Production Act to address the pandemic. Trump refused.”

Cases have been declining steadily since the infection rate peaked in the U.S. in January following the winter holidays. But health officials warn against the relaxing of COVID-related restrictions happening in many states, encouraging people to keep wearing masks and social distancing to limit the spread of the newer, more transmissible variants of the virus.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variant spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard earned ground we have gained,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Monday. “Please stay strong in your conviction.”