Johnson & Johnson has temporarily stopped making its COVID-19 vaccine at the only facility producing usable doses, The New York Times reported, citing people familiar with the situation. Production has reportedly been paused since late last year.
The facility, located in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, is now producing an experimental and potentially more profitable vaccine for a different virus, according to the Times. The pause is expected to last only until next month, the news outlet said, and it's unclear how or whether it'll affect vaccine supplies. Sources told the Times that the break at the plant could potentially reduce supply by a few hundred million doses over the next several months.
A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied the production pause, telling CNET that the company currently has millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines in inventory. Johnson & Johnson also continues to supply doses to all of its "fill and finish sites," which bottle the vaccine for distribution, the spokesperson said.
Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine is easier to refrigerate and store, and therefore easier to distribute than Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines. It's also cheaper, and health officials have said it makes for a better option in harder-to-reach communities, where people may not always be able to return weeks later for a second dose. Countries in Africa, in particular, have relied on Johnson & Johnson's vaccine as protection against severe COVID-19 disease.
"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," Dr. Ayoade Alakija, a co-head of the African Union's vaccine delivery program, told the Times.
Johnson & Johnson's spokesperson said the company "continues to fulfill our contractual obligations in relation to the COVAX Facility and the African Union." One of J&J's fill and finish sites is in South Africa. COVAX is a program dedicated to equitable vaccine access, and it buys vaccines and distributes them to many lower-income countries.
In the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines over Johnson & Johnson's for most people, citing concerns over a rare but dangerous blood-clotting disorder seen with J&J, and because the other two vaccines are widely available and accessible now in the US. Some health officials have also argued that though one dose does provide protection against severe disease, Johnson & Johnson should actually be a two-dose vaccine because a second shot raises that protection to a level more comparable to the mRNA vaccines.
Other countries don't have access to additional vaccine choices. According to Our World in Data, a little more than 10% of people living in low-income countries have had a dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
A source told the Times that the experimental vaccine being produced at the Netherlands plant is for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and that it'll be tested in a clinical trial for older adults in wealthy countries. Johnson & Johnson didn't confirm or deny the vaccine being made at Leiden to CNET.