With the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, what has been an extremely tight supply of potentially lifesaving vaccines to fight the pandemic could begin to ease significantly soon.
Local officials expect shipments of the J&J vaccine to begin as early as this week, says Nancy Bennett M.D., chair of the Monroe County vaccine task force. Quantities allocated for the area are not yet known.
Initial supplies of the J&J vaccine nationally are slim. But the Biden administration announced Tuesday that it has struck a deal with the pharmaceutical giant Merck to add its manufacturing muscle to J&J’s to quickly turn out stores of the J&J vaccine.
The addition of a third alternative to what so far have been very tight supplies of the currently available Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccines is welcome news. But experts fear that the unwillingness of some to take the J&J vaccine could unnecessarily slow COVID vaccines’ rollout.
While Moderna’s and Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccines have been shown to be more than 90 percent effective at preventing all types of COVID-19 infections, J&J’s vaccine is 66 percent effective, a difference that could spur some to wait for what they perceive to be a better alternative.
University of Rochester Medical Center infectious disease researcher Angela Branche M.D., is currently overseeing a trial of an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine locally and has heard such fears voiced by trial participants who wondered if they were getting a second-rate shot.
They are not, Branche says. Waiting for a seemingly better vaccine would be a mistake.
Ninety percent effective might sound a lot better than 66 percent. But the difference is far less significant than it seems.
“All the vaccines are a really very good,” Branche says. “Everyone should get vaccinated as soon as they can.”
A key factor, she says, is that the “end points” of the studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and J&J vaccines are different.
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna studies showed those vaccines to be highly effective against all levels of COVID-19 infection from moderate to severe to life threatening.
The J&J vaccine’s lesser effectiveness against all levels of the disease only means that people dosed with it would be slightly more likely to experience a temporary loss of taste or smell or flu-like illness but would be just as protected against the virus’s most severe effects.
In the end, says Branche, all three vaccines are 100 percent effective at keeping patients out of hospitals and off ventilators or supplemental oxygen. In short, all three vaccines are equally effective at keeping people alive. All three have also been shown to be equally effective against new and potentially more deadly strains of the constantly mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Further putting the apparent effectiveness gap in perspective, Branche points out that for many vaccines, a 50 percent rate or even less is considered a good result. Flu shots, for example, which must be newly formulated annually to fight new influenza strains, are often less than 50 percent effective and have been as little as 10 percent effective.
While they use slightly different means, all three COVID-19 vaccines use essentially the same method—introducing a relatively harmless substance into the body that spurs the immune system to produce antibodies that disable or destroy the virus.
Side effects such as temporary but relatively mild COVID-19 symptoms including loss of taste and smell, headaches, a cough or flu-like illness could occur with all three vaccines, Branche says.
Most who experience such symptoms shake them off in a few days or less. The single-shot J&J vaccine might be less likely to produce such side effects than the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, Branche believes.
Another advantage of the J&J vaccine: Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which spoil if not kept at temperatures tens of degrees below zero, it is estimated to remain stable for up to of three months at routine refrigeration. That means it could be kept and administered at many more locations and could more easily be distributed to rural areas that do not have equipment to store vaccines at extremely cold temperatures.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.