- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2021

The White House and governors worked overtime Monday to boost confidence in Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved vaccine, saying it is just as good as the others in preventing hospitalization or death from COVID-19 and is more convenient to boot.

Federal officials said 3.9 million doses were in transit and would be divvied among the states by population, setting the stage for J&J’s adenovirus-based vaccine to enter arms by Tuesday or Wednesday.

In press events across the country, officials described the single-dose vaccine as a versatile tool that can be stored for a long time and might be ideal for people who want to schedule only one vaccine visit.

They implored people not to get hung up on trial data showing the J&J vaccine was 66% effective against all forms of disease, compared with 95% demonstrated by the messenger-RNA vaccines approved in December.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said the difference was largely because of mild cases and there is no reason to fret.

“This is a really good vaccine. It’s 100% effective against death and hospitalization,” Mr. DeSantis said. “If you have an opportunity to take the J&J, take the J&J.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the J&J vaccine was stress-tested beyond the U.S. in Brazil and South Africa, where hard-charging coronavirus variants dominate. State officials said the mRNA versions didn’t undergo such rigorous testing.

Experts say it’s difficult to compare a single-dose vaccine against two-dose versions that require boosters to develop the protection demonstrated in trials.

The vaccines “were not studied in a head-to-head comparison or trial; therefore, they should not be compared to each other. All are effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said. “People should take the vaccine that is available to them.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, told residents at a Baptist church south of Boston that when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, “people don’t need to pick one from another.”

“If you have a chance to get a vaccine, you should take it whatever it is,” the Republican said.

The Food and Drug Administration this weekend approved J&J’s vaccine for emergency use in people 18 and older, triggering initial shipments to states, territories and pharmacies.

The supply of the J&J vaccines will be limited and uneven at first. Governors said they weren’t sure what to expect beyond this week’s supply.

Roughly 16 million additional doses are expected to ship nationwide through March. The company is under contract to provide 100 million doses through June.

Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna versions that require two shots, each dose of the J&J vaccine will count as a full vaccination, hastening an immunization campaign that is delivering an average of 1.7 million doses per day in the U.S.

Time is of the essence. The government said the recent decline in cases appears to be stalling out at an average of 70,000 diagnoses per day.

“Within the next 24 to 48 hours, Americans should start receiving shots in arms,” J&J CEO Alex Gorsky told NBC’s “Today” show. “Patients here in this country, let alone around the world, should have a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, in knowing they’re getting a very safe and effective one-shot vaccine.”

Even as federal officials placed the J&J vaccine on par with the others, they recognized the potential for suspicion if it is given to underprivileged populations and the mRNA vaccines are given to wealthier, advantaged people.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, who handles vaccine equity for the Biden administration, said the relative ease of cold storage might make the J&J shot a good option for “pop-up” vaccinators. Those mobile units may serve specific populations, such as far-flung areas or underserved Black communities.

“But overall, we do think the distribution, again, should be even across communities,” Dr. Nunez-Smith said. “We will be tracking, by metrics such as ZIP code and social vulnerability, to see where vaccines are going. Should certain vaccines go consistently to certain communities, we will be able to intervene.”

It is not clear exactly what that intervention would look like, although White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said it would begin with communication of federal standards and then “technical assistance to the state or other providers.”

Mr. DeSantis emphasized the one-and-done convenience of the single-dose vaccine, which can be stored in typical refrigerators for up to three months. The mRNA vaccines require ultra-low freezing temperatures for long-term storage.

The governor said he planned to expand vaccine eligibility Monday to police officers, firefighters and K-12 teachers older than 50. Those sectors, he said, could be immunized quickly with the one-shot option and overall increase in supply.

Mr. Gorsky said J&J is conducting tests and working with regulators to make sure the vaccine is safe for all people.

“We’re looking at its use in pregnant women. We’re looking at its use in children above the age of 12, further along, even younger,” Mr. Gorsky said. “We’re going to make sure we follow the data, we follow the science, but we’re very confident in those programs. So over the remainder of 2021, we’ll be able to gather that information, submit it to regulators, and hopefully have it available for children and women around the world.”

Also Monday, a study in the United Kingdom found that an initial dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine significantly reduced the risk of serious illness in recipients 70 and older.

The data is a big boost for the vaccine, which is less expensive than other versions and is being used to vaccinate people in poorer countries. 

Results from AstraZeneca’s trial in the U.S. should be available in the coming week. If results are positive, then the company will seek emergency approval from the FDA.

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