July 16, 2020 / 4:22 PM / a month ago

EXCLUSIVE-J&J in talks with Japan, Gates Foundation to lock in deals on COVID-19 vaccine

(Adds details on production, background)

By Carl O'Donnell and Manas Mishra

July 16 (Reuters) - Johnson & Johnson is in talks with the government of Japan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about locking up allocations of its potential COVID-19 vaccine as it prepares to kick off human trials, the company's Chief Financial Officer Joseph Wolk told Reuters in an interview.

More than a hundred vaccines are under development to try and stop the COVID-19 pandemic, and drugmakers including J&J are working to ramp up supply for their vaccines in the face of unprecedented demand.

J&J has already agreed to prioritize an allocation to the United States as part of its funding agreement with the U.S. government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Wolk said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would focus on allocating any vaccine it acquired to developing countries, Wolk added. Reuters previously reported that J&J is also in talks with the European Union.

"Nothing has been finalized yet. We continue to have those discussions," Wolk told Reuters. "People from the countries and the organizations we mentioned want to lock in a certain minimum level of capacity that they would get."

Wolk said that the "general construct" of the discussions is likely to take a form similar to AstraZeneca Plc’s deal with the U.S. government, which provided $1.2 billion in drug development aid to the U.K. drugmaker in exchange for locking in a delivery of around 300 million doses for fall 2020.

AstraZeneca has also signed a contract with France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands for up to 400 million doses of its potential vaccine. It has also partnered with non-profits to ensure distribution to developing countries.

Wolk added that these discussions will help Johnson & Johnson determine pricing for its vaccine, which the U.S. drugmaker intends to sell on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic.

"The more demand we have the better and lower that cost would potentially be,” Wolk said.

The company aims to begin manufacturing the vaccine later this year, depending on its success in clinical trials, he added.

In its Thursday earnings call, J&J said it plans to start its first human trials of its COVID-19 vaccine on July 22 and could kick off late-stage studies as soon as September.

Reporting by Carl O'Donnell in New York and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker

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