J&J and Merck lag behind rival vax-makers — but could have a trick up their sleeves

Aug. 13, 2020

Are J&J and Merck losing the coronavirus vaccine race? Or taking a smarter approach?

Although rivals including Moderna and AstraZeneca are already in late-stage trials with their vaccines, Merck is not planning to start human trials with its candidate until August. J&J has already begun early human trials of its candidate and is targeting September to begin late-stage trials.

Yet, both companies could be taking an approach that will eventually pay off— a one-shot vaccine. The U.S. has already placed massive orders for the vaccines being made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, with the assumption that patients will need two doses — an initial shot and then a booster. 

But preclinical studies of the vaccines being made by Merck and J&J have shown that they can create a robust antibody response with just one shot. Both companies say they are now planning to test a one-dose regimen in their large-scale trials. If successful, the candidates being developed by Merck and J&J could be a cheaper and more attractive purchase than a two-dose regimen for governments around the world. Patients are also more likely to be receptive to a one-and-done vaccine. 

If other candidates are approved and widely distributed first, Merck and J&J run the risk of entering a saturated market. But with many predicting that the pandemic will continue well into next year, their long-game strategy may prove effective in the long-run.