DURHAM – A huge vaccine production campus operated by Merck in Treyburn could be selected for production of Johnson & Johnson’s new coronavirus vaccine under a deal being announced Tuesday afternoon by President Biden.
The Maurice R. Hilleman Center for Vaccine Manufacturing offers some 900,000 square feet of facilities for vaccine production. Over the years Merck has invested nearly $1.6 billion in the campus, which covers more than 260 acres.
The Washington Post reported that “Merck will dedicate two facilities in the United States to Johnson & Johnson’s shots. One will provide ‘fill-finish’ services, the last stage of the production process during which the vaccine substance is placed in vials and packaged for distribution. The other will make the vaccine, and has the potential to vastly increase supply, perhaps even doubling what Johnson & Johnson could make on its own.”
The plant locations were not disclosed although The Post noted Merck’s vaccine production capabilities in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Merck halted its own plans to develop a coronavirus vaccine earlier this year, finding that their candidates were generating an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines. It said it would instead focus its work on developing treatments for COVID-19.
A Biden administration official confirmed Merck’s involvement on condition of anonymity ahead of Biden’s public announcement, according to The Associated Press.
Ahead of the White House announcement, Merck wouldn’t discuss a deal with Johnson & Johnson to make doses of the COVID-19 vaccine or say whether it is talking with other companies about helping to make theirs.
“Merck remains steadfast in our commitment to contribute to the global response to the pandemic and to preparing to address future pandemics,” the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company said in a statement.
More than 800 people work at the Treyburn operation. A $650 million expansion announced in 2019 will eventually add another 400 jobs.
In January, Merck announced plans to further expand Treyburn operations and add another 100 jobs.
“The Durham plant plays a tremendous role in controlling the global spread of preventable diseases,” said Bill Bullock, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s senior vice president for economic development and statewide operations, in a recent interview. “It’s an impressive example of the strength and diversity of this state’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector.”
Several Merck pediatric, adolescent and adult products, including the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine namesake Maurice Hilleman developed are manufactured there.
Hilleman, a 30-year veteran of Merck who died in 2005, is considered by many to be the father of modern vaccines. He developed more than 40 of them. It’s a record unequaled by anyone in his field, anywhere. He’s credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist of the 20th century. And his vaccines continue to save millions of lives today.
A $650 million, 225,000-square-foot addition – announced in 2018 – will manufacture the active ingredient for Merck’s recombinant human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
Vaccines from Durham find their way to patients in more than 80 countries.
Merck also operates facilities in Wilson. Two expansions announced in 2019 will increase the 500-person workforce there by some 10%.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Associated Press contributed to this report.