Johnson & Johnson unveiled its much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine trial data Friday morning, and the news is mostly very good.
The pharmaceutical giant announced that its vaccine candidate is 66 percent effective at preventing moderate and severe COVID cases. That figure sits at 72 percent in the United States, 66 percent in Latin America, and drops to 57 percent in South Africa, where a more infectious variant, which has also been found to be better able to evade neutralizing antibodies, has quickly spread across the country. That variant has already turned up in the United States, and epidemiologists have warned that it — or other mutations first found in England or Brazil — could soon become the dominant strain in America.
That the new vaccine is less effective at protecting against the South African variant is cause for concern. Still, the top-line numbers of Johnson & Johnson’s trial, while not approaching the astounding success of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines (both of which prevented COVID in more than 90 percent of participants), are also somewhat misleading, since the statistics under the hood are far more worthy of celebration: The Johnson & Johnson dose provided 85 percent protection against severe illness, and 100 percent protection against death.
After 28 days post-vaccine, none of the thousands of people enrolled in trials worldwide had to be hospitalized. So while a higher percentage of people contracted COVID after the vaccine than did so with Pfizer and Moderna, the cases were largely mild ones.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses different technology from its Pfizer and Moderna cousins, also holds a few major advantages over those vaccines when it comes to ease of distribution. Most importantly, it requires only one shot, not two. And it can be stored in a standard fridge for up to three months, as opposed to the ultra-cold temperatures at which mRNA-based vaccines must be stored. These factors make it far easier to administer than other vaccines from a logistical perspective, and could make it an ideal candidate for rollout to poorer countries with less developed health-care infrastructure.
Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply for emergency authorization with the FDA soon, and shots could be available by late February. It has a contract with the federal government to provide 100 million doses, though manufacturing has lagged, with only about 7 million doses ready to go within the next few weeks, according to the New York Times.