Johnson & Johnson’s easy-to-deliver Covid-19 shot is the vaccine of choice for much of the developing world.
Yet the American company, which has already fallen far behind on its deliveries to poorer countries, late last year quietly shut down the only plant making usable batches of the vaccine, according to people familiar with the decision.
The facility, in the Dutch city of Leiden, has instead been making an experimental but potentially more profitable vaccine to protect against an unrelated virus.
The halt is temporary — the Leiden plant is expected to start churning out the Covid vaccine again after a pause of a few months — and it is not clear whether it has had an impact on vaccine supplies yet, thanks to stockpiles.
But over the next several months, the interruption has the potential to reduce the supply of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine by a few hundred million doses, according to one of the people familiar with the decision. Other facilities have been hired to produce the vaccine but either aren’t up and running yet or haven’t received regulatory approval to send what they’re making to be bottled.
Inside Johnson & Johnson’s executive suites, the decision to suspend production at Leiden prompted concerns that it would impair the company’s ability to deliver on its vaccine commitments to the developing world.
Johnson & Johnson’s move also blindsided officials at two of the company’s most important customers: the African Union and Covax, the clearinghouse responsible for getting vaccines to poor countries. Leaders of those organizations learned of the halt in production from New York Times reporters.
“This is not the time to be switching production lines of anything, when the lives of people across the developing world hang in the balance,” said Dr. Ayoade Alakija, a co-head of the African Union’s vaccine-delivery program.
Jake Sargent, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, said in an email that the company was “focused on ensuring our vaccine is available where people are in need” and that its global production network “is working day and night” to help fight the pandemic.
He said the company was continuing to deliver batches of the vaccine to facilities that bottled and packaged doses. He also said Johnson & Johnson had millions of finished doses in inventory.
Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine, initially billed as a single shot, fell out of favor in the United States and other wealthy countries in part because of its link to a rare but dangerous blood-clotting disorder. Studies have found that it performs worse by some measures than the shots from Pfizer and Moderna.
But poorer countries remain reliant on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which does not require ultracold refrigeration. It has been shown to provide strong and long-lasting protection against severe disease across variants, including Omicron, when given as a two-shot regimen. As a single shot, the vaccine is less expensive and relatively easy to give to hard-to-reach populations.
“In many low- and middle-income countries, our vaccine is the most important and sometimes only option,” Dr. Penny Heaton, a Johnson & Johnson executive, said in December at a meeting of experts advising the U.S. government on vaccines. She added, “The world is depending on us.”
Lower-income countries now have more vaccine options than at any previous point in the pandemic, and the impact of pausing production at the Leiden plant is therefore less severe than it might have been in the past. Some African governments have asked vaccine manufacturers to pause shipments until the countries use what they have on hand. Companies have cited that as evidence that they are providing plenty of vaccines to poorer countries.
But the reality is more complicated.
Only about 11 percent of Africans have been fully vaccinated (and few have received boosters). Many countries lack the infrastructure — medical personnel, storage facilities and transportation — to quickly inoculate their populations. They don’t need a huge pile of vaccines all at once; they need a steady and predictable supply over many months.
Mr. Sargent said the company was continuing to fulfill its contractual obligations to the African Union, which has ordered vaccines on behalf of dozens of countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and to Covax, which buys vaccines for scores of low-income governments.
But Johnson & Johnson failed to deliver anywhere near as many doses to Covax as it planned. The company said in May that it “aimed to supply” up to 200 million vaccine doses to Covax by the end of last year. Covax got only four million; another 151,000 arrived last month, according to Gavi, the main…