Grand Rapids company honored to be making J&J COVID-19 vaccine

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Executives at a Grand Rapids pharmaceutical plant say they were proud to be charged with manufacturing Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is great news: great news for our country, great news for the world and certainly great news for West Michigan,” Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing President and CEO Tom Ross said during a Monday morning press conference. “This vaccine, which was developed, tested and manufactured in less than one year is a truly amazing accomplishment. It will now be distributed throughout he world and will profoundly impact the world as we know it today.”

He and other executives touted the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, which was developed in about a year, and said how excited and honored they were to be involved.

“We talk about words like an honor, a privilege, and that’s truly heartfelt,” Ross said. “The opportunity to really save lives and be part of this solution is something you can only dream of.”

He commended the hard work of his employees, who he said have rallied around the mission.

“We’ve worked tirelessly and endlessly on an accelerated timeline to produce a vaccine that meets the same quality and safety standards that we’ve always upheld,” he said. “The team has done amazing work.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine Saturday and its first doses were scheduled to ship out Sunday night. Johnson & Johnson was expected to delivery about 4 million doses nationwide in the first week. Of those, 82,700 doses are expected in Michigan by mid-week. 

Local health officials told News 8 the state has not along distribution plans from the federal level, but there’s general optimism of their ability to help broaden clinics and reach providers that previously had difficulty obtaining supply due to the storage requirements of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, both of which must be kept colder than Johnson & Johnson’s and require two shots.

Chief Medical Officer of Metro Health – University of Michigan Health Dr. Ronald Grifka noted drive-thru clinics will become more feasible with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“One shot is a huge advantage for this vaccine,” Grifka told News 8. 

Johnson & Johnson contracted Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing to finish and fill its vaccine doses.

“We take the drug substance, which is actually a concentrated bulk of the vaccine, and we basically formulate that into injectable vials,” Steven Nole, vice president of operations for GRAM, explained the process to News 8 last week.

He added Monday that filled vials then get sent off to another facility for the final preparation and packaging before being distributed.

Ross said manufacturing has been underway for months, though he could not say exactly how many doses it had made, citing security concerns.

GRAM, which currently employs about 350 people, is looking to hire 75 more as it continues to make more doses. It is working to open a new finishing center near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport and expects to get more equipment early next year to expand production.

“GRAM is proud to play a critical role in supporting Johnson & Johnson in the battle against COVID-19,” Ross also said in a Monday statement. “Our team is enthusiastic, dedicated and focused on supporting the fight against COVID-19 and we are honored to play a role in this very important mission.”

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines are being manufactured in Portage, near Kalamazoo. That vaccine was the first greenlighted in the U.S. in December.

In addition to the latest vaccine becoming another weapon used to combat the pandemic, Michigan is slated to receive its largest shipments yet, with nearly half a million doses are expected to arrive in the state this week. 

—News 8’s Lynsey Mukomel and Joe LaFurgey contributed to this report.

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