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Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

What You Should Know About the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

Approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine for COVID-19. Now, about eight percent are fully vaccinated. In Florida, those numbers are 15 percent and more than seven percent, respectively.

So yes, progress has been slower than everyone would like, largely due to a shortage of vaccines. That’s about to change, however. Pfizer and Moderna have both pledged to step up production.

And Johnson & Johnson is rolling out their newly approved vaccine, aided by an agreement with rival Merck under the Defense Production Act to increase capacity. Because our family practice doctors in Delray Beach have received a number of questions about this newest weapon in our arsenal against the novel coronavirus, we wanted to address them here.

What’s different about J&J’s vaccine

Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which use messenger RNA (mRNA) to teach the body what the coronavirus looks like, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the more traditional route: an inactivated cold virus that does not replicate in the body.

That virus (known as an adenovirus) has been genetically engineered to look like the spiked protein surrounding the coronavirus. Following vaccination, the body starts ramping up its immune defenses to fight off this new invader. Thus, when it encounters the real thing, the immune system already knows how to repel it.

Another big difference between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the earlier two is that it can be stored for months at refrigerator temperature. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require ultra-cold storage. This has made it difficult for facilities that don’t have that ability to handle vaccine distribution.

Finally, only one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is necessary, as opposed to two—an initial dose and a booster later—for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

(A side note: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is sometimes referred to as the Janssen vaccine, because the Janssen division of Johnson & Johnson created it.)

Effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

The biggest questions—and hesitations—about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine revolve around its efficacy.

In clinical trials, no one who took any of the three approved vaccines were hospitalized or died. Thus, by that standard, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were all 100 percent effective at preventing serious illness or death.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were better at preventing moderate cases of COVID-19, however. In those cases, both vaccines were about 90 percent effective. In contrast, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was only about 66 percent effective internationally (72 percent in the U.S.) at preventing moderate cases of infection.

Experts point out, however, that the ratings for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were obtained earlier in the outbreak, when we were dealing with just the original strain. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested more recently, after the initial virus had begun to mutate.

It was also tested in South Africa, where one of the most transmissible variants emerged. Against that variant, it was found to be 80 percent effective in preventing the more serious complications of COVID-19. Neither the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines have been tested against any of the variants.

In addition, as vaccines go, a 66 percent efficacy rate is considered excellent. The annual flu vaccine, for example, is generally between 30-50 percent effective.

“In a normal world, people would be jumping up and down for a vaccine that is more than 70 percent effective,” Jeanne Marrazzo, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told The Washington Post. 

Johnson & Johnson has recently begun trials to determine whether a second shot would bring its efficacy rate nearer to the other two vaccines.

Which vaccine to get?

The differences in efficacy are leading many people to try to select which one to get. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, recently said he’s hoping to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I’m just going to get one shot and be done,” he said recently.

Other people want to get one of the two others, because they think they’re “better” somehow. This, as we’ve shown, is not necessarily the case.

This early in the vaccines’ rollout, however, most people still won’t have much choice. While Johnson & Johnson plans to have 20 million doses available by the end of this month, that pales in comparison with the 220 million each that Pfizer and Moderna expect to deliver in the same time frame.

“The vaccine that’s available to you, get that vaccine,” advised Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert and White House advisor.

Our primary care doctors agree. As many people must receive their vaccinations as quickly as possible. This prevents their own infection and reduces the chances that the virus could mutate further among those with no immunity. That, of course, could ultimately make all the vaccines less effective.

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