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Johnson & Johnson’s efficacy against a COVID variant is even better than originally thought, but it’ll be tough to find at first

johnson & johnson south africa variant
Photo via GovernmentZA/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an analysis of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that had both good news and bad news. The good news: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine meets the requirements for emergency use authorization after finding it more effective in protecting people from COVID-19 than previously estimated, including in South Africa where a coronavirus variant has made it tougher to fight the coronavirus globally. 

The bad news: Johnson & Johnson is running behind in manufacturing and doesn’t have as many doses ready to ship. 

Johnson & Johnson now has plans to apply for emergency use authorization and could receive approval by as early as Feb. 27, with vaccines to begin rolling out in March. 

According to the New York Times, the vaccine now has a 72% efficacy rate in the United States. CNN reports it has a 66% efficacy rate after 30 days worldwide. In South Africa, where one of the more well-known COVID variants was discovered, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine efficacy was 64%—seven percentage points better than the original data showed.

“The fact that the numbers came up a little bit, once they fully analyzed the data from the time of the initial press release, shows that it’s not that different against the South African variant,” Dr. Philip Grant, one of the investigators in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial, told CNN. “I think it’s going to have to be looked at more carefully, in terms of which vaccines are most effective in different locations.”

Even better, the vaccine has an 86% efficacy against severe forms of COVID-19, so it substantially lessens the possibility of being hospitalized or dying from the virus. 

“There were no specific safety concerns identified in subgroup analyses by age, race, ethnicity, medical comorbidities, or prior SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the analysis said.

Although its efficacy rate is lower than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which are at about 95%, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might be more popular among Americans because it is more convenient. It differs from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines because it only requires one dose and can be stored in a standard refrigerator for up to three months. According to the New York Times, participants in early trials also reported milder side effects than the other vaccines.

Unfortunately, it may be hard to get once it is officially authorized for emergency use by the FDA. The Times reports that Dr. Richard Nettles—the vice president of U.S. medical affairs at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the drug development arm of Johnson & Johnson—told Congress that just 4 million doses would be ready for shipment. Previously, the company had pledged 12 million.  

Nettles said 20 million doses would ship by the end of March, behind its original schedule. However, he remained confident the company would still meet its commitment of 100 million doses by mid-summer. 

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are made using messenger RNA, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a “viral vectored” vaccine.

StatNews explains that a “harmless adenovirus” has been created to “carry the genetic code for the SARS-2 spike protein.” Once in the cell, the adenovirus then uses the code to make the protein, which gives the body protection against future COVID-10 cells. This is the same way Johnson & Johnson created the successful Ebola vaccine. 

Read more about coronavirus variants:

Sources: FDA, New York Times, CNN, StatNews


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