Merck Confirms J&J COVID-19 Vaccine Includes Durham Site

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Global pharmaceutical giant Merck has confirmed that its flagship Durham vaccine manufacturing facility is gearing up to help competitor Johnson & Johnson produce COVID-19 vaccine.

In a two-sentence statement issued Wednesday evening, Merck put an end to rumors that the massive Maurice R. Hilleman Center for Vaccine Manufacturing in Durham was joining the scramble to produce a share of the hundreds of millions of doses needed to quell the pandemic.

“Our Durham, NC facility is part of Merck’s global manufacturing network,” the company said in a statement. “This site is preparing to produce bulk drug substance for the J&J’s vaccine.”

Even though two vaccine candidates under development by Merck failed to pass muster in clinical trials recently, Merck agreed with federal officials to cooperate with J&J and combine Merck’s world-class biomanufacturing capabilities with J&J’s to help whack the scourge of COVID-19.

Merck's Hilleman Center campus in Durham
Merck's Hilleman Center campus in Durham.

Merck will use two of its manufacturing facilities in the effort, supporting drug substance development, formulation and vial filling. The company’s huge West Point, Pennsylvania site will fill vaccine vials with finished product and package them for shipment.

The government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will allocate up to $268.8 million to upgrade the two Merck locations to manufacture the single-dose J&J vaccine.

Merck will receive $105 million from BARDA initially through the Defense Production Act, according to a release issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency for BARDA. The Defense Production Act speeds access to materials needed for production.

President Joe Biden announced earlier this week a government deal to secure 100 million more doses of J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine. That’s in addition to the government’s previous agreement to purchase an initial 100 million units.

The selection of the 262-acre Durham site comes at a time of expansion there, with investment approaching $2 billion. Its 900,000-plus square feet of real estate houses the production of a wide range of Merck products. And the growth is on the way in the form of a $650 million, 225,000-square-foot addition, where the company will manufacture the active ingredient for Merck’s recombinant human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Bill Bullock, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s senior vice president, Economic Development and Statewide Operations, lauded Merck’s decision to produce the J&J vaccine in Durham as a win-win for the world.

“North Carolina’s long-term investment in the life sciences is not just good for our state,” he noted. “This growing cluster of biomanufacturing companies serves a global need that will only continue to require more of what our outstanding workforce can provide,” 

He also championed the Merck site saying, “The Durham plant plays a tremendous role in controlling the global spread of preventable diseases, It’s an impressive example of the strength and diversity of this state’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector.”

Numerous North Carolina companies are contributing to the production of COVID-19 vaccines, therapies, diagnostics and protection devices. Most notably, FUJIFILM Diosynth is manufacturing Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine at its facility in Research Triangle Park.

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