DURHAM, N.C. – The federal government has awarded Merck more than $100 million to produce coronavirus vaccine at its Durham plant.

Johnson & Johnson enlisted Merck’s help to ramp up production of its one-dose vaccine. President Joe Biden announced this week a government deal to secure 100 million more doses of the vaccine beyond an initial agreement to purchase 100 million units.

“Vaccine supply has been the great limiting step in getting people vaccinated,” said Dr. Thomas Holland, an infectious disease expert with the Duke University Health System.

Merck plans to make the vaccine at its plant in north Durham and put it into vials at a plant in West Point, Pa.

The government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will provide up to $268.8 million to upgrade the two plants. Merck will receive $105 million from BARDA initially through the Defense Production Act, which speeds access to materials needed for production.

Bill Bullock, senior vice president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, said Durham’s selection is a testament to the work the state has put in over decades to build up the biomanufacturing industry.

“There is a readily available workforce here in the region that has the specialized skills because the folks at Durham Tech and Wake Tech and N.C. State and N.C. Central are training specifically to those needs,” Bullock said.

A Merck spokesman said the vaccine production could mean more jobs at the Durham plant. A search on LinkedIn shows a number of jobs open there, including some that were posted Thursday.

“The obvious kind of direct economic benefit is that they hire people from the community,” Bullock said.

Merck already makes vaccines for chicken pox and shingles in Durham, and the company is in the midst of a $650 million, 225,000-square-foot addition there to manufacture the active ingredient for Merck’s recombinant human papillomavirus vaccine.

It’s not clear when the Durham plant will start production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or how long they will be making it.

Part of that may depend on how often people will we need to be vaccinated.

Holland said studies are still underway to determine how long the vaccines provide protection.

“We know that natural infection with COVID gives immunity that’s pretty good, at least for six months and probably longer than that,” Holland said. “I would expect that the same is true for vaccine immunity, and in fact, vaccine-derived immunity may be even better.”

Researchers also need to determine if people will need a different vaccine or booster shots for different coronavirus variants, he said.

“We know that most residents who were hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine are really warming up to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and we welcome that,” Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he doesn’t know if Durham County or North Carolina will have access to extra doses since the vaccine will be produced locally. Officials across the state have complained for weeks about limited supplies of vaccine.

“I can only imagine, without being very presumptuous, if it’s made here in our backyard, we may have more vaccine readily available to our residents,” he said. “I’m willing to advocate, rally and talk to whomever to make sure that Durhamites receive first dibs on those, but nevertheless, we certainly are happy that it will be produced right here in our backyard.”