500,000 dead. That’s a tough number to swallow, and we’re still not done with the COVID-19 pandemic. After a rough start to the vaccination process, the U.S. is finally getting some good news. The FDA says the latest COVID-19 vaccine, this one from healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, has met the requirements for emergency use authorization.
This means we will soon likely have a third drug in our arsenal against COVID-19. So, how does the new vaccine stack up to the ones offered by Pfizer and Moderna? Let’s find out.
A Promising Review of a 3rd Vaccine
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published its first review of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine earlier this week, also known as JNJ-78436735 or Ad26.COV2.S. It comes with an efficacy rate of 66.9% against moderate to severe disease at least 14 days after injection, and an efficacy rate of 66.1% at least 28 days after infection.
That’s substantially lower than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which come with an efficacy rating of over 94% when it comes to moderate to severe disease.
However, the J&J vaccine is considered a potential game-changer simply because it only requires one dose. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses, administered exactly three to four weeks apart. Bringing patients back onsite for their second shot has become a logistical nightmare in many parts of the country. Some people may forget to come back for their next appointment or may have trouble getting to the office in person. Others may not be able to get their second shot due to scheduling delays.
From a managerial perspective, providers have to book patients for two appointments at once while making sure there’s enough vaccine for everyone to get their second dose.
The J&J vaccine would eliminate many of these problems.
The new drug comes with an excellent safety profile, according to regulators. “There were no specific safety concerns identified in subgroup analyses by age, race, ethnicity, medical comorbidities, or prior SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the analysis said.
It is less likely to cause an allergic reaction, which is considered a potential side effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. However, some patients may still experience pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue, and muscle pain. The drug was reviewed extensively during the clinical trials, which included over 40,000 participants. Preliminary data also suggests the new vaccine helps prevent asymptomatic infection.
Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the J&J drug contains instructions for fighting off the spike proteins on the coronavirus virus using double-stranded DNA, instead of RNA. DNA is considered much more stable and durable than RNA. The company became one of the first to create what are known as adenovirus-based vaccines. Adenoviruses are common viruses that typically cause colds or flu-like symptoms. J&J combined the gene of the novel coronavirus with an adenovirus to send the DNA to cells in the body, so they can protect themselves against infection.
What About Variants?
Regulators are also closely watching to make sure existing COVID-19 vaccines will work against the new coronavirus variants, including the ones that first appeared in the U.K. and South Africa, both of which have been shown to spread more easily than the original version of the virus.
According to the data, the J&J vaccine proved to be 64% effective in South Africa, where most of the active cases have been linked to the new variant. That’s a full seven points higher than what the company reported back in January, a promising sign that the new vaccine will work against the variants.
Dr. Philip Grant, a lead investigator on the Stanford University arm of the J&J vaccine trial, said:
“The fact that the numbers came up a little bit, once they fully analyzed the data from the time of the initial press release, shows that it’s not that different against the South African variant. I think it’s going to have to be looked at more carefully, in terms of which vaccines are most effective in different locations.”
Where Does the J&J Vaccine Go from Here?
The report from the FDA is meant to inform the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, an independent review board made up of immunologists, health experts, and providers from all over the country. They will decide whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes it into the arms of Americans.
The committee is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the information provided by the FDA. Most of the time, the committee follows the FDA’s recommendation, which means the first few doses could go out in just a few weeks, assuming all goes well with regulators.
Dr. Aditya Gaur, a co-lead investigator on the J&J trial at St. Jude in Memphis, says it’s not about comparing one vaccine to another. It’s about saving lives.
“Given the effectiveness data that’s being shared with the vaccines that are available, in assuming this one gets approved, what we all should be seeking is a vaccine, not trying to look at, which one’s better because it’s just very, very nuanced,” Gaur added. “They’re all giving protection against the severe spectrum of the illness.”