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New Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be 'a huge, huge win,' LI doctor says

An illustration shows vials with COVID-19 vaccine stickers

An illustration shows vials with COVID-19 vaccine stickers attached and syringes with the logo of pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson on Nov. 17, 2020. Credit: TNS/JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Although Johnson & Johnson on Friday said its coronavirus vaccine is less effective than the two already being given, experts say it could help speed up the pace of vaccinations, as the demand for vaccines continues to greatly outstrip supply.

"There’s no question that the more candidate vaccines that are available — so hundreds of millions of people in the United States can get the vaccine as quickly as possible — the better," said Dr. Henry Bernstein, a pediatrician with Northwell Health and a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which reviews vaccines.

New Jersey-based J&J said it will file an application for emergency use in the United States within a week with the federal Food and Drug Administration. It hopes to supply 100 million doses nationally by June, and a billion doses globally by the end of the year.

The J&J vaccine was 72% effective in preventing moderate or severe COVID-19 illness among its U.S. subjects — although only 57% effective in South Africa, where a different version of the virus predominates, the company said. The South African variant was detected this week in the United States, and scientists believe it and other variants will continue spreading.

That compares with a 95% effectiveness for the currently authorized vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — although experts cautioned against direct comparisons because the J&J vaccine is a different type of drug and studies on it took different approaches. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also appear to be less effective against the South African variant.

But J&J reported that its vaccine was 100% effective in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 and death from the disease.

"You have to define effectiveness, and if this keeps people who are infected from being admitted, that’s a huge, huge win," said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside.

"If you end up getting the vaccine, but it’s a mild case, that’s big," he said.

Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, added, "If you have a product that can completely protect against deaths, it is certainly an advance."

The research results released Friday are preliminary findings from a study of 44,000 volunteers that is not yet complete. J&J said its vaccine is safe.

Bernstein, who said he couldn’t comment in detail on the J&J vaccine because he hasn’t yet received data on it, said the lower effectiveness of the vaccine against the South African variant "is an important element to consider."

But "even if something is 60% effective, that’s better than 0%," said Bernstein, a professor of pediatrics at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. "If you look at the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine, year after year generally the vaccine effectiveness is 50-60%, which prevents a significant amount of disease."

Glatt said having another vaccine would help break the logjam that’s kept eligible New Yorkers from making an appointment. State officials have said the infrastructure to distribute the vaccine on a large scale is in place — but there isn’t enough vaccine to go around.

"Assuming this vaccine is safe and gets approval, it would mean more people can get vaccinated," Glatt said. "The hope is we reach the point where every doctor's office, pharmacist and urgent care center has the vaccine and it’s easy to make an appointment."

At many sites, people cannot choose which COVID-19 vaccine they’ll get in advance.

Gwenn Polansky, 69, of Riverhead, who has a March 29 appointment for a vaccination at a state-operated site in Jones Beach, said she’d prefer the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine to the J&J one.

But, she said of the J&J drug, "I wouldn’t turn down a vaccine if I got there and that’s what they’re offering. … It’s not like we have all these options. I had a hard enough time getting an appointment."

The state is currently administering the Pfizer vaccine, health department spokeswoman Erin Silk said.

The J&J vaccine offers big advantages over the authorized ones: It uses only a single dose, while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need two, and it has less stringent storage requirements, remaining effective for up to three months in a refrigerator.

Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, said that would "make it much easier for local pharmacies and local physicians’ offices" and help prevent spoilage of doses.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said the single dose could be especially attractive to people at lower risk for severe COVID-19, who may be less willing to travel for two appointments, and it would be easier for vaccine providers.

"I don’t have to worry about, ‘Are you going to come back, did I book the second appointment, do I have enough supply?’ " she said.

Eventually, there could be a more effective two-dose option for the J&J vaccine, said Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, an epidemiologist and a professor of medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. J&J currently is studying the effect of a booster shot, and, Weiss said, "I would be encouraged seeing this much evidence of prevention from a single dose" that a two-dose regimen would be more effective.

With AP