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January 13, 2021

Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine could quicken inoculations — if effective

The single-dose shot offers advantages that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines lack

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Johnson Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Grid Scheduler/Public Domain via

Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine requires a single dose that can be stored in refrigerators — both advantages over the vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna.

Johnson & Johnson is set to release the results of its COVID-19 vaccine trial later this month — welcome news amid a slow vaccine rollout and rising death rates across the country. 

In addition to increasing supply, the vaccine offers some advantages that could expedite a vaccination effort that has been hampered by various issues.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which each require two shots delivered weeks apart and must be stored in freezers, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that remains stable in a refrigerator for months. 

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific director of Operation Warp Speed, previously called the vaccine a "game changer." If proven effective, it could quicken a vaccination rollout that failed to hit its December benchmarks and help reduce surging daily death tolls, which have hit as high as 4,000 fatalities

Despite the promising nature of the vaccine, Johnson & Johnson has fallen behind its original production schedulethe New York Times reported. The company promised to deliver 12 million doses to the federal government by the end of February, but it will not meet that figure. It could take as long as April to get back on schedule. 

Johnson & Johnson signed a $1 billion contract last August, committing to deliver 100 million doses to the federal government by the end of June. A separate agreement gives the government the option to purchase another 200 million doses. 

The U.S. government only has secured enough vaccine doses to immunize 200 million of the 260 million eligible adults in the first half of his year, according to the Times. Delays from Johnson & Johnson could further hamper that timeline. 

If results from the 45,000-person clinical trial show the vaccine is safe and effective, Johnson & Johnson will apply for an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in February, the company has said

Health experts view the vaccine's less burdensome storage requirements as a major plus. 

The vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator for three months at 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer's vaccine must be stored at -94 degrees, requiring special freezers, and Moderna's must be stored between -25 and -15 degrees. 

"We believe this stability will help make it easier to transport and distribute our COVID-19 vaccine candidate without the need for shipping at special temperatures," Dr. Mathai Mammen, global head of Janssen Research and Development, an arm of Johnson & Johnson, said earlier this month. 

The vaccine uses a genetically-modified adenovirus that mimics the coronavirus's spike protein to produce an immune response. The non-modified adenovirus causes the common cold. 

That approach also differs from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which rely on messenger RNA. But it is similar to the one taken by the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been authorized by the United Kingdom. AstraZeneca is expected to apply for an emergency use authorization in the U.S. in April.

"The J&J vaccine is more like the AstraZeneca vaccine, but it uses only one dose," health care analyst Adam Barker, of Shore Capital, told CNBC in an email. "So we know this approach works (viral-vector) and it targets the spike protein. We know that target works too. But we'll have to see what one dose does."

The vaccine was developed by Janssen Pharmaceutical, the company's Belgian division.

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