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Everything to Know About Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine could be approved and ready for distribution as soon as February.
Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved and ready for distribution as soon as February. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

It looks like we may soon have another COVID-19 vaccine. Last week, Johnson & Johnson — one of the pharmaceutical companies that has a supply agreement with the federal government — unveiled a long-awaited summary of findings from its global clinical trial, and the results are promising. According to the New York Times, the company’s vaccine was 66 percent effective at preventing moderate and severe COVID cases, 85 percent effective against preventing severe disease, and 100 percent effective against death. Now, the pharmaceutical giant has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization.

Here’s everything you need to know about Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine, from its efficacy rate to the timeline for its expected approval and how it would be rolled out.

How effective is Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine?

Across the areas where the vaccine was tested — including the U.S., South Africa, and countries in Latin America — its overall efficacy rate against moderate and severe disease came in at 66 percent. However, the rate varied from place to place: In the U.S., the vaccine was 72 percent effective, whereas in Latin America and South Africa, its efficacy rate was 66 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

The cause of this disparity lies with COVID variants. In South Africa, for example, 95 percent of the cases in the trial came from the variant known as B.1.351 (also known as the South African variant), which is more transmissible; the vaccine’s efficacy rate there dropped to 57 percent. While these numbers may at first seem disappointing — especially in comparison to Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines, which feature efficacy rates over 90 percent — researchers still believe Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to be a strong candidate. Consider that flu vaccines, for example, typically feature an efficacy rate that falls somewhere between 40 and 60 percent.

In the clinical trial, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was also highly powerful at protecting against severe illness (85 percent effective) and death (100 percent effective) in every location it was tested. As leading virologist Anthony Fauci said in a call with reporters on Friday, “If you can prevent severe disease in a high percentage of individuals, that will alleviate so much of the stress and human suffering and death.”

How is it administered?

Unlike the two COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S., which use mRNA technology and require two doses, Johnson & Johnson’s uses a weakened common-cold virus to prompt an immune response and requires just one dose. The new vaccine can also be stored in a standard fridge for up to three months, as opposed to the ultralow freezing temperatures that mRNA vaccines must be kept in. For these reasons, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is infinitely easier to distribute.

“A vaccine that’s inexpensive, that’s a single dose, and that has no cold-chain requirements — that’s pretty good,” Fauci told CNN.

But is Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as good as Moderna’s or Pfizer’s?

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, said that he personally “would make an effort to get an mRNA vaccine first.” If he were unable to get an mRNA vaccine for “many months,” though, he said, “I would take J&J in the secure knowledge that I could get Pfizer or Moderna later.”

But Fauci emphasizes that Johnson & Johnson’s efficacy rate is still objectively great — it just seems low in comparison to the mRNA vaccines. “If this were out there and we didn’t have the Moderna 94 percent to 95 percent … We would have said, ‘Wow, a 72 percent effective vaccine that’s even more effective against severe disease is really terrific,’” he said. “But now we’re always judging it against 94 percent to 95 percent.”

When might it be approved for distribution?

On February 4, the pharmaceutical company applied for emergency authorization from the FDA, which Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, called a “pivotal step toward reducing the burden of disease for people globally and putting an end to the pandemic.” Next, the FDA’s independent group of experts will consider Johnson & Johnson’s data on February 26, and then make a recommendation regarding whether it should be approved.

How would this vaccine be rolled out?

The company has a $1.5 billion supply agreement with the federal government to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. However, manufacturing isn’t off to a great start: The Times reports the company may only have 7 million doses ready to go by the time the FDA decides whether or not to authorize it. The bungled vaccine rollout continues apace.

This post has been updated.

We May Soon Have Another COVID Vaccine