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And then there were three. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine from Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (J&J) for people 18 and older after reviewing its safety and efficacy data.
More vaccine availability at a time of high demand and limited supply could help officials vaccinate more Americans, more quickly. In addition, the J&J vaccine offers one-dose convenience and storage at conventional refrigeration temperatures.
Initial reactions to the EUA for the J&J vaccine have been positive.
“The advantages of having a third vaccine, especially one that is a single shot and can be stored without special refrigeration requirements will be a major contribution in getting the general public vaccinated sooner, both in the US and around the world,” Phyllis Tien, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, told Medscape Medical News.
“It’s great news. We have yet a third vaccine that is highly effective at preventing COVID, and even more effective at preventing severe COVID,” said Paul Goepfert, MD. It’s a “tremendous boon for our country and other countries as well.”
“This vaccine has also been shown to be effective against the B.1.351 strain that was first described in South Africa,” added Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic and infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The EUA “is indeed exciting news,” Colleen Kraft, MD, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital and associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said during a February 25 media briefing.
One recent concern centers on people aged 60 years and older. Documents the FDA released earlier this week suggest a lower efficacy, 42%, for the J&J immunization among people in this age group with certain relevant comorbidities. In contrast, without underlying conditions like heart disease or diabetes, efficacy in this cohort was 72%.
The More the Merrier
The scope and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates as many protective measures as possible, said Raj Shah, MD, geriatrician, and associate professor of family medicine and codirector of the Center for Community Health Equity at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois.
“Trying to vaccinate as many individuals living in the United States to prevent the spread of COVID is such a big project that no one company or one vaccine was going to be able to ramp up fast enough on its own,” Shah told Medscape Medical News.
“This has been the hope for us,” he added, “to get to multiple vaccines with slightly different properties that will provide more options.”
Experience with the J&J vaccine so far suggests reactions are less severe. “The nice thing about the Johnson and Johnson [vaccine] is that it definitely has less side effects,” Kraft said.
On the other hand, low-grade fever, chills, or fatigue after vaccination can be considered a positive because they can reflect how well the immune system is responding, she added.
One and Done?
Single-dose administration could be more than a convenience — it could also help clinicians vaccinate members of underserved communities and rural locations, where returning for a second dose could be more difficult for some people.
“In a controlled setting, in a clinical trial, we do a lot to make sure people get all the treatment they need,” Shah said. “We’re not seeing it right now, but we’re always worried when we have more than one dose that has to be administered, that some people will drop off and not come back for the second vaccine.”
This group could include the needle-phobic, he added. “For them, having it done once alleviates a lot of the anxiety.”
Looking Beyond the Numbers
The phase 3 ENSEMBLE study of the J&J vaccine revealed a 72% efficacy for preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 among US participants. In contrast, researchers reported 94% to 95% efficacy for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
However, experts agreed that focusing solely on these numbers can miss more important points. For example, no participants who received the J&J vaccine in the phase 3 trial died from COVID-19-related illness. There were five such deaths in the placebo cohort.
“One of the things that these vaccines do very well is they minimize severe disease,” Kraft said. “As somebody that has spent an inordinate time in the hospital taking care of patients with severe disease from COVID, this is very much a welcome addition to our armamentarium to fight this virus.”
“If you can give something that prevents people from dying, that is a true path to normalcy,” Goepfert added.
More Work to Do
“The demand is strong from all groups right now. We just have to work on getting more vaccines out there,” Shah said.
“We are at a point in this country where we are getting better with the distribution of the vaccine,” he added, “but we are nowhere close to achieving that distribution of vaccines to get to everybody.”
Goepfert, Shah, and Kraft Disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Tien received support from Johnson & Johnson to conduct the J&J COVID-19 vaccine trial in the San Francisco VA Health Care System.
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.