Despite lower efficacy, researchers explain why Johnson & Johnson vaccine will boost distribution

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Friday, Johnson and Johnson shared the initial trial results of their single-dose COVID-19 vaccine.

"This has important potential and real world implications both domestically and globally because as many of you are aware of, this is a single shot vaccine in which you start to see efficacy anywhere from 7-10 days following the first and only shot," said Dr. Anthony Fauci during a press conference Friday morning.

In the trial, the shot was 66% effective in preventing COVID-19 with mild symptoms, and 85% effective in preventing severe symptoms and hospitalization. Less than 10% of respondents developed a fever, and there were no reports of severe side effects, including severe allergic reactions.

Comparatively, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the flu vaccine in a good year is about 60% effective. This was an international trial, with participants in the US, Latin America, and South Africa; the dose was 72% effective in preventing COVID-19 with mild symptoms in the US, which fared best in the trial.

The Pfizer and Moderna versions, which are both multi-dose, had 95% and 94% efficacy rates, respectively. However, both are multi-dose and have cold-chain requirements which make it difficult for underserved communities--the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at -80 degrees Celcius and the Moderna vaccine at -40. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is stable for up to three months in the refridgerator and two years in a freezer.

"I think that's going to be another piece of the puzzle that's going to be tremendously helpful, not just in rural US, but there are urban areas that are quite isolated, and this cold-chain requirement was quite difficult for them as well," said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, the Senior Advisor for COVID-19 for the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

After recently picking up the pace in vaccinations, several Triangle health departments and hospitals said they received fewer vaccine doses than expected this week, highlighting broad supply concerns.

"I think getting vaccinated is the most important piece. And if we can increase the supply with a safe and effective products, that's going to be key here because a lot of this administration delays is due to supply chains delays as well," said Engel.

Johnson & Johnson has not yet submitted their vaccine for FDA Emergency Use Authorization. The agency previously stated they would consider authorizing vaccines that are more than 50% effective.

"Some degree of protection is a good thing. And there's no question if we can cut down on severe disease and people going into the hospital, that's a huge win. So I think from that perspective, the J and J results are very encouraging," said Dr. Tony Moody, a Duke School of Medicine Professor of Pediatrics who works at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

Researchers are studying how vaccines respond to new variants, first identified in the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa.

"Based on all the data that we're seeing, the response that you get to the original strain doesn't necessarily give you the same level of protection against the variant strains, that is definitely a concern. It doesn't appear to be an all or nothing kind of thing. It's not as if this new variant is completely resistant," said Moody.

Earlier this week, Moderna said their vaccine does appear to be effective against both variants first identified in the UK and South Africa, adding out of an abundance of caution they are working on a booster to address the latter strain.

With temperatures dropping and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine not yet authorized, Moody stressed the next couple months are important to slowing the spread.

"We're stuck for a while doing all the kinds of things we've been trying to do to blunt the pandemic. And I don't think that's going away any time soon. Everybody was hopeful that when we flipped from 2020 to 2021 that everything would be sunshine and lightness. We've got a longer time ahead of us unfortunately," said Moody.

Doctors continue to urge people to follow the 3 W's - wear a mask, wait six feet apart, and wash hands, while limiting trips outside your home and time with people who do not live with you.
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