On Friday, February 27th, FDA advisors officially confirmed the emergency-use authorization of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Joining Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna as the third FDA-recommended vaccine in the US, let’s break down everything you need to know about the newest jab on the block.
First of all, the J&J vaccine distinguishes itself from its counterparts in that it is a refrigeratable, single-dose vaccine. According to CNN, It does not need to be stored in ultracold conditions as does Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – instead of needing to be kept frozen, it can be stored in a standard refrigerator for up to three months. Therefore, the J&J vaccine could be a gamechanger in terms of accessibility. It could reach more people in remote areas that may not have access to ultracold equipment. It will prevent variability in terms of people being unable to show up for their second vaccine. Jonathan Brand, president of Cornell College, seconds this, emphasizing that this vaccine could especially benefit young adults ages 18-29 who work in high-risk environments, live in dorms or otherwise crowded residences, and may not be able to return to their original vaccination site for their second dose. Furthermore, as a single-dose vaccine, Johnson and Johnson could open doors for more mass vaccination opportunities. Brand mentions that colleges and universities could aid in these mass vaccination efforts, providing “the gyms, the arenas, the field houses, [and] the parking lots.”
Now, how does the vaccine work? The J&J vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, in which an adenovirus (a common virus producing cold-like symptoms) is altered with a coronavirus gene carrying a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. When someone gets vaccinated, the modified adenovirus enters their arm and their cells begin producing more spike proteins, which are consequently recognized by the person’s immune system. This stimulates the production of antibodies to protect against the virus.
Unlike Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which are mRNA-based vaccines, the J&J vaccine utilizes double-stranded DNA – and it is because of this tougher, rugged DNA coat that the vaccine is able to be stored at higher temperatures than its mRNA-based counterparts.
In terms of effectiveness, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is 66% effective overall (and 72% effective in the US) against moderate Covid-19, in contrast to Moderna’s 94% and Pfizer/BioNTech’s 95% effectiveness. However, despite J&J’s statistics against moderate symptoms, the vaccine is roughly 85% effective against severe Covid-19 and 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. According to Nancy M. Bennett, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, “Those facts are the most important to recognize.”
It’s also important to consider the big picture with regards to the 66% overall effectiveness against moderate Covid-19 – the three vaccines should not be directly compared to one another. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine went through clinical trials later in the pandemic, specifically during the emergence of new and more contagious variants. The 94% and 95% effectiveness statistics from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, though higher than Johnson and Johnson’s, may reflect the fact that, during their clinical trials, variants of the virus were not yet discovered. As mentioned earlier by Professor Bennett, the most important thing is that the J&J vaccine protects against severe illness and death from Covid-19. The vaccine will ultimately save lives. It will help prevent hospitals from overcrowding and healthcare workers from being overworked. It will increase vaccine supply in the US and get more people inoculated, “transform[ing] the virus from a potentially fatal disease into [simply] a nuisance illness.” For these reasons, we shouldn’t simply pass on this vaccine based on how the numbers compare – we should by all means get the J&J vaccine if we have the opportunity to. With this third vaccine in circulation a year into the pandemic, we are one step closer to some semblance of normal life.